Pham Xuan An through the Eyes of Foreign Writers

Since its release on the first of October, the Vietnamese translation of Larry Berman’s “Perfect Spy”, which relates the double life of North Vietnamese secret agent Pham Xuan An, has become the most sought-after book in the country.

The cover of "Perfect Spy"
Viet Nam’s long struggle for independence is full of stories about secret agents, and none of his fellow spies created as many legends and raised as many questions as Pham Xuan An.

Even when he revealed the truth that he’d been a long-time agent of the North, An still got the same respect and admiration from his former colleagues and even his enemies. An has become a big question for both of the old antagonists, the Americans and the Vietnamese.

Many Vietnamese books about the national hero have been published over the years, both fiction and non-fiction. However, because most of his life was spent overseas, it is better to judge An from a foreigner’s viewpoint.

So far, two books by foreign authors, namely “Pham Xuan An – A quiet Vietnamese” by Jean-Claude Pomonti and “Perfect Spy” by Larry Berman, have been published in Viet Nam. These accounts generated considerable controversy in their respective lands when they came out.

There are two questions in particular about Pham Xuan An that Pomonti and Berman tackle in their narratives: How could an agent stand so much pressure for 23 years in the enemy’s land without blowing his cover? And how could a top agent with information that could affect the course of the war get so much help from his enemies, even the extremists?

Each has his own way of handling these questions. Pomonti focuses on the background and related issues, and gives detailed descriptions of the supporting characters, partners and friends rather than Pham Xuan An himself. He puts the northern agent into a secret circle of unintelligible acts, a device that encourages the reader to fill in the blanks.

Pham Xuan An (A photo in the book "Perfect Spy" by Prof. Larry Berman)
Professor Berman, on the other hand, chooses the most obvious and coherent way. Besides employing his own memories and the writings of Vietnamese and foreign authors, Berman interviewed many people, examined hundreds of documents and confronted many witnesses on both sides before writing his book.

Both authors were clearly attracted to the aura around Pham Xuan An. As Pomonti said, An was someone whom the Americans came to for advice about tackling the Vietnamese, and vice versa. This gave the spy access to many important people and sources of information. And those relationships were still solid even 30 years after the war.

Trying their best to find an answer to the riddle named Pham Xuan An, the two foreign authors have been successful to an extent. Yet neither captures the essence of An’s heart and mind, which would be pretty hard for them to do as neither really understands the mindset of a Vietnamese patriot.

Where they do succeed is in conveying the loyalty and patriotism of Pham Xuan An.

By Tuong Vy – Translated by Thuy Hang

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