Aurelia Frequenzia Reveals the Heart and Mind of the Man of Destiny

Richard Stern

I’d come expecting to detest Tao Thinh, I left detesting him, but for a strange moment in between, a moment that was of hours’, perhaps days’, duration, I experienced with him a kind of devilish sympathy that made for an intimacy closer, and, in its way, more disarming, even incantatory, than would have been possible had our natures harmonized.

We talked over a period of days. The tape recorder is a barnyard of false starts, awkward advances, gauche retreats. Only occasionally is there a clear attack, a progress towards the subject. Without violating the accuracy of his portrait in any essential way, I am preserving here only these authentic developments.

We spoke in of all places Bao Kim, the Vevey of Annam. Here the abstemious Thinh has a pied à terre, scarcely more than a pair of shacks linked by a courtyard in which is tethered the beautiful incarnation of the devil which may be the only form of non-vegetable life Thinh loves: Kho Tuy, the Leopard, for whom Thinh procures meat, drink, and, yes, sex, but who remains, in Thinh's proud description, “implacable in his hatred of me and of any who murder his liberty.” This living icon dominated our talk, and now dominates my mind as I work to see Nguyen Tao Thinh there on the planks of Annemese cedar angled from his shack towards the mint-edged lake in the almost alipine semi-circle of the Ran Chieu Hills which, for Thinh, have each a personality so powerful that he jokes about assigning them telephone numbers and putting them in the Military Directory. “They know me better than any man. You might wish to interview them about me.”

Since his deposition in the coup of May 8, Thinh has stayed in these hills, usually with his marvelously beautiful Japanese companion, Daibata, and their child, a two-year-old boy as beautiful as his mother, as spare and wired as his father, but sightless. The interview as printed here will not reveal Thinh’s extraordinary feelings about his only recognized child. (There are supposedly five children whose mother is the Thai princess to whom he was married nine years, and about whom he not only would not talk but whose name made him suddenly vacant as if a question had been asked about the hobbies of the chairs we sat on.)

Our talk was in French, which he speaks with a strong Annemese accent but with complete fluency.

AF: Mr. Minister—


NTT: (breaking in easily, authoritatively): Don’t begin with your thumb in the soup. I’m no longer a Minister. 


AF: I must call you something. Most men who’ve run countries prefer the distance of their most exalted title. 


NTT: I thought you were of the world. My exalted title is the one my father gave me. Call me that if you want, or better, call me nothing. Ask your questions, I’ll answer them. (Here he pulled the cork from a flask of scarlet drink, a liquor fermented from a cross between a raspberry and a currant. He poured it into two tin messkit cups; it tasted like sulphur and vinegar. I spat out my first mouthful to his laughter. He offered nothing more; I had to ask him for tea, but that was later, and he called back to Daibata, who brought us a wonderful T’ang brew.)

AF: As you wish, though it seems anyone so sensitive to such minor conventions as titles could not last as long as you did in public office.


NTT: When I was in office, I swallowed ordure from breakfast to supper. Some of my colleagues adjust to such taste; when their stomachs are not treated to it, they are sick with the privation. I ate in public, vomited in private. I thought you were a realist, mademoiselle.

AF: Enough to appreciate the courtesy of that title, M. Thinh. But down to brass tacks, if you will. To politics, to life, to money, to your wants, your dreams, your needs, to your mind. (His hand to the fine pale brown rectangle of forehead.) Do I disturb you?


NTT: Yes.


AF: You’ve consented to answer questions. Did you expect me to ask you your saint’s day? I can look that up in Paris.


NTT: You disturb me because I think here is a handsome, lean woman with no behind and small breasts who sits by a beautiful lake begging a man she has never met before to let her come into bed with him by attacking everything he says, raiding every gesture he makes for her notebook, feasting on—


AF: We will see about my desires later, Mr. Thinh. The only invitation issued and accepted has to do with other matters. Why not proceed? Why divert me with this journalist’s portrait of the journalist?


NTT: Continue.


AF: For seven years now, you have fought alongside, perhaps even within the forces of the United States. Before that—


NTT: I know, the French. And you want to know why I—


AF: Perhaps you should conduct the interview. Just as you apparently reverse the roles of patriot and invader by siding with the colonial powers.


NTT: Miss Frequenzia, your breasts would need to be twice their present size to escape the consequences of such a line of questions. (As my breasts have now become a fact of the interview, I had better go on the record to say they have not been found wanting in the occasions to which they have been called.)


AF: I have been told that Vietnamese men prefer the small breasts of Vietnamese women, and that only those Vietnamese whose taste was corrupted by the milk-and-meat-fed west were obsessed with mammary gigantism or its steatopygous equivalent. Is it the case that you sent your consort to Tokyo for breast-and-buttock enhancement?


NTT: I am suspicious of vocabularies like yours. They are either the fortification of fear or the clumsily-handled weapons of cowardly belligerence. (Here a lean, mahogany arm shot out, a piece of meat somehow in its lean claw. The meat was arced toward the tethered Kho Tuy whose terrible ivory knives gripped it in mid-air. I removed my eyes from the brief sequel, though, minutes later, my ears and nostrils were treated to the consequence of the furious ingestion.)

 AF: How do you see your future?


NTT: In the exquisitely mendacious crystals below your eyebrows.


AF: If you read it there, you also see a gallows.


NTT: I see a divan of reeds. I see a white woman terrified, bound to the divan. I see black musculature aquiver over a too-thin, too-flat, aging, powdered body. I see—


AF: Too much and not enough.


NTT: The papaya genitalia of a black leopard stiff with specie-crossing tension. I close my eyes to the scene.


AF: Your mother owns the pedicab concession of the capital, your consort the race track at Ne Hai. Although you have never drawn more than an army colonel’s salary, you own a jet airplane, four villas, a diamond belt; your consort’s Bentley has an emerald licence plate which is guarded by machine gunners who spend three hour periods of duty in its trunk. I could go on with the list of those stupendous superfluities which have stripped how many thousands of your fellow countrymen of their rice, their shirts, their leisure. You claim to be a patriot, interested in nothing but the expulsion of the communists—


NTT: And the white flesh that befouls our streets.


AF: And keeps your villas for you. How reconcile your piracy and your supposed patriotism?


NTT: Reconciliation is the job of a woman. And a journalist. I am a soldier. One who likes his comfort.


AF: You have been called a thief, a narcissist, a megalomaniac.


NTT: You are articulate.


AF: Trials are made with words, but their consequences can be deeds. Death.


NTT: Perhaps. But feline menace is only words.


(I love hate. The men and women whom I interview work against the grain of my rational disposition, but they grip me. Deeply. Nguyen Tao Thinh, sitting before me with the coldness of a glacier—a glacier of brown sugar—drove through my hatred to some untouched organ of fear, hatred and—I will confess it—lust. I rose from my chair, I walked to his. I have short, ugly hands. To distract from them, I have let my nails grow long and carmined them. On safari, in the jungle, the desert lying under the moon on a mountainside, I tender these nails. Now I brought them against his throat. His eyes, anthracite bits, flamed. His silly, twenties’ mustache bobbed, amused. His arms rose between mine, and with a single move broke my hold. And then, not his beloved beast, but he himself—though clothed, and, as I could tell, unextended—stood face to my face, lips open, white, tobacco-spattered teeth in grimace, nose against mine, lips on mine.

We stood there, unmoving in this extraordinary expression of intimate, unreconciliable farewell.) 

Love what you've read? Subscribe to The Paris Review.