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Forward O Peasant

By Maclean J Storer

Chapter 1

Colonel Nguyen Van Hanh, Deputy Minister of Health, Regional President of the
Fatherland Front, Hero American Killer, Leader of the Southern Struggle Committee To
Eradicate Bird Flu, four-flower two-star, hated the month of January.
For him, it did not represent renewal and regeneration, because, like many older
Vietnamese, he ignored the Western New Year and waited for the traditional lunar new
year at Tet. This always fell early in the year, and, as head of an extended family, he
always found it an expensive exercise. Thus the whole of January was spent anxiously
seeing how much his wife would manage to waste on unimportant fripperies.
Now he had come to hate December as well. Vietnam's opening up meant that the
country now aped all sorts of Western customs, including the quite alien Christmas,
even down to the deployment of department store Santa-ettes, who pranced around
alluringly in cute little red dresses and hats with bells on. In Colonel Hanh's view, it was
just another excuse for needless waste.
This year, it had been even worse, with the news that his feckless son Cuong had
seduced one of the department-store Santa-ettes and made her pregnant. Colonel Hanh
thought he'd heard some rhythmic tinkling coming from his son's bedroom one
afternoon, but hadn't bothered to check. He would have to keep a closer eye on the boy.
That had cost even more money, and had caused his wife to lose face among the
neighbours, which in turn had brought her round to the subject of having a facelift,
which was the new status symbol among middle-aged women in Saigon. It was the kind
of home life that made long days at the office seem pleasurable by comparison,
especially since he had acquired a gift case of North Korean cognac.
That morning had been typical. He had been trying to eat his breakfast soup in peace,
but his wife would not stop haranguing him about subjects of varying irrelevance. She
was particularly upset that the neighbours had made an effort to steal one of her shitzu
puppies by shinning up the outside of their garden wall and trying to scoop the thing up
in a fishing net.
“Next time, just shoot them," Colonel Hanh had grunted, a remark that later, sitting in
his office, he began to regret having made, in case his wife took him literally. His wife
was no stranger to firearms or spontaneous acts of rage, and despite his rank of deputy
minister, it would be embarrassing to find himself blamed, however indirectly, for the
shooting of peasants.

Then his office telephone rang. He scowled at it. It was not meant to ring. It was there
for him to call other people, not for them to call him. A direct phone call could only
mean a crisis. It was his niece Xuan on the line, telling him that Harald Karlsson had
“Gone where?" Colonel Hanh croaked.
“Gone, as in gone for good. Cleared his flat out and left. We are checking to see if he is
still in the country."
“What are we going to do?" asked Colonel Hanh, who was not of the world's decisive
thinkers. Even thirty-five years earlier, when he had been a reluctant conscript in Hero
Battalion 336, it had been generally conceded that he was unfit for command. He was
perfectly adequate at smearing shit on sharpened bamboo sticks or finding trees with
plentiful bark to eat, but not leadership material.
Fortunately, his sister had married a lieutenant who could both drive a tank and do
arithmetic, and their daughter, Xuan, had proved to be blessed with similar intelligence.
He hoped she would have a solution. Harald Karlsson, fool that he was, worked for some
annoying U.N. agency monitoring the appropriate use of aid money in Vietnam, and his
monthly signatures on the aid cheques, which came directly to Colonel Hanh, were
“We cannot admit that he has simply left of his own accord," said Xuan. “That would
make us look bad. We will need to pretend that he has been killed in a motorbike
accident or died of a rare disease."
“Fine," said Colonel Hanh, still brooding on the U.N.'s inquisitive arrogance. So what if
several thousand doses of polio vaccine wound up on the black market? Did they have
the right to interfere?
“And then we must ask for a replacement," said Xuan, as though petitioning a
storekeeper for a new light bulb. “We don't want any delays."
“A delay would be intolerable," said Colonel Hanh. “The next aid cheque is nearly due."
“I will take the necessary steps immediately," said Xuan.
Colonel Hanh put down the phone and sighed. His eye fell on a large hardback volume
on his desk entitled Achievements and Directions of the Communist Party of Vietnam, a
title which even he recognisedas a contradiction in terms.

High office was tiring. The cares of his job were many. The air pollution was making his
cough worse. And his back was still hurting. It was early in the day, but what the hell. He
eased himself out of his chair with a grunt and headed for the cupboard where he kept
the cognac. A glass of Old Pyongyang would go down perfectly.


With no hesitation, Xuan got to work. It was not her inclination to waste time querying
the motives of Harald Karlsson in disappearing. It was enough that he had gone, and
that his disappearance was an insidious threat to national security. Humming The Red
Star Sparkles As I Go Off To War, she prepared a fax to send to the London
headquarters of the United Nations Mission on Education and Training, asking them to
supply a representative, in-country, one, to replace Harald Karlsson. That done, she
arranged Karlsson's death by visiting the Saigon branch of the PA-18 Anti-Foreigner
police and getting a bogus accident report, followed by a trip to the Cho Ray hospital for
a bogus medical report.
When she had finished her rounds, she carefully placed the documents in a green folder.
It wasn't likely that the replacement UNMET representative would even look at them,
but it was best to be careful, for the sake of the Fatherland. But it was odd, the way
Karlsson had disappeared. Perhaps it was the result of the stress he had caused himself
by beginning to take an interest in his work, instead of just signing the aid cheques and
going off to get drunk and commit social evils in girlie bars.
She put the green folder in her desk and locked it. Her watch told her it was six o'clock
in the evening, which meant it was nine o'clock in the morning in London. It was the
perfect time to send off a fax and get a quick reply. Even more so, it was important they
made sure they chose the right person for the job.

“UNMET has given us three names," said Xuan early the next morning, distributing
photocopies around the table in Colonel Hanh's office. “A Russian, an American and an
“Forget the Russian," snapped Colonel Hanh, looking porcine at the end of the table.
“He'll want a cut."
“A cut of what?" asked a young, sharp-featured man, whose name was Dzung.
Nominally Colonel Hanh's executive assistant, he disdained the old man as a buffoon
and was always ready to upset him whenever possible.
“And I don't like the English," went on Colonel Hanh. “The American will do. After what
his country did to us, he will not have the gall to interfere."
“It's a woman," said Dzung. “Her name is Tina Nguyen."
“What?" said Colonel Hanh, glaring at him. “Are you trying to be funny?"
The last thing they needed was an American of Vietnamese background. They were the
worst. Her parents would have been parasitic bourgeois landlords who had slunk out of
the country instead of welcoming the Revolution, and were no doubt even now holed up
in their lair in America plotting revenge against the Fatherland. There was no telling
what damage the woman could do if she was put in charge of disbursing aid funds.
“She is unacceptable," said Colonel Hanh.
Xuan was disappointed. She would have preferred a woman -- any woman -- to the
shambling, cretinous inebriate that the man would inevitably turn out to be, if he was
like other Western men in Saigon.
“It must be the Englishman, then," said Dzung. “What are his details?"
“He is an economist, thirty-one years old, and has worked for UNMET for three years,"
Xuan translated from her photocopy. “He has just completed a U.N. report on the need
to give extra development funds to impoverished countries."
“Good, good," said Colonel Hanh heartily.
“He sounds intelligent," said Dzung, unable to keep a note of concern out of his voice.
“We can hardly give that as a reason for rejecting him," said Xuan, fixing Dzung with a
stare. “UNMET might think we had something to hide."
Dzung looked down at his photocopy, and Xuan decided to try again.
“I'd rather we chose the American woman," she said. “She will have been less susceptible
to the insidious nature of hostile Western influences."
“Out of the question," said Colonel Hanh. “By leaving the country, her family has
demonstrated counter-revolutionary tendencies."
It was very trying that they had to replace Harald Karlsson at all. He had possessed all
the qualities that make an excellent U.N. representative in Vietnam --- he was not
intelligent, he drank himself into a stupor every day, rarely if ever looked at official
papers and was happy to be told what to do. His fetish for sleeping with as many young
Vietnamese women as possible on a commercial basis was a notable social evil, but
something they could overlook, given his other sterling qualities. It was truly a pity that
he had had an attack of conscience, or whatever it was that had caused him to start
nosing about, and subsequently to leave without saying goodbye.
“Yes, it will have to be the Englishman," said Colonel Hanh, scowling.
Xuan took out a Vinabiro ballpoint pen and carefully circled the name: “Phillip
Jonathan Snow, PhD, Economics, London."