BOOKS / The Independent Foreign Fiction Award: Hanoi, on a penny an hour: Peter Guttridge asks Frank Palmos about Bao Ninh

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The Independent Culture
FOR A long time Frank Palmos had nightmarish memories of Vietnam. In 1968, as an Australian foreign correspondent, he was travelling in a jeep with four other journalists when they were ambushed by a Vietcong platoon. Two of the journalists were killed instantly, two were wounded then cold-bloodedly murdered. Palmos survived by feigning death, but he could never forget the incident.

Consumed by desire to understand the motives of the soldier who had delivered the coup de grace to the two wounded men, Palmos went back to Vietnam 20 years later to find and confront him. Ridding the Devils, the book he wrote about his search, became the first non-propaganda book about the war to be published in Vietnam with the official approval of the Vietnamese government.

It was published - and bootlegged in many other editions - at the same time that former North Vietnamese soldier Bao Ninh's moving account of the Vietnam War was becoming an underground success. Ninh's book was the first in Vietnam to speak honestly about the psychological traumas, traumas the army had always insisted were a western disease.

Palmos, 54, who lives in Perth, met Ninh on one of his visits to Vietnam. Phan Thank Hao, the woman who had translated his own book into Vietnamese, had also translated Ninh's into a kind of English. Palmos says, trying to be tactful: 'Hao deserves all credit for bringing this important book to the attention of the west, but her translation was unreadable.'

Palmos's real expertise is in Malaysian and Indonesian - he was a simultaneous translator in those languages at the age of 24. He started with Hao's translation but quickly abandoned it. He also tried to forget the 'learned, picked up' Vietnamese he already knew. 'I went through the book word by word, asking for help from Vietnamese speakers over almost every important phrase. I'd often get four people to translate a paragraph for me. I wrote it 'correctly', then I went through it again and brought in atmosphere. Later I put in a bit of humour.'

Six trips to Vietnam and five months of 15-hour days later, he had completed his 88th and final version. 'I put it on a loop on my word processor. The book hasn't got an ending or a start so a translator can start almost anywhere. Then I worked on it continually. I earned about 1p an hour by the time I was finished.' He feels it was worth it. 'Bao Ninh is a very brave man and this story is an important one. I hope I haven't let him down.'