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Manoa 14.1 (2002) 139-149

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The Self-Portrait

Nguyen Minh Chau

I am a painter, not a writer. I wish to make this point clear from the start—not as a plea for generosity from the reader, but to remind myself that I write this story for my own sake and for the sake of the painting I have just completed. The second thing I will mention is that the story is written for one other person. However, no matter whom it is written for—whether for you, the reader, or this other person, who is, in fact, a barber—what I write will still be a kind of confession.

I cannot honestly remember how many months have passed since the day I first walked into the barbershop and recognized him. Since then, however, I've forced myself to pedal the two or three kilometers once a month to have him cut my hair. I have no idea how long ago it was that I started slaving over this oil painting either. Oil was unfamiliar to me until then, but I knew I could not treat this subject with watercolors or lacquers. Neither the quick brushstrokes of watercolor nor the dazzling illusory atmospherics of lacquer can satisfy the demands of an artist who wishes to build an understanding of himself and judge himself by his strokes. Only this morning did I finish the painting. Now I sit in front of the self-portrait and face myself. How can I describe it? Dear reader, imagine the face of a man sitting as if nailed down to a barber's chair. A broad, white cloth covers his chest; a very large human face nearly fills the whole canvas. Beams of light pour down on a head and illuminate it as if they were thousands of candles. Half of the head is covered with thick, bushy hair and looks like a mysterious dark forest. The other half, already clipped, looks at first glimpse very much like a human brain. Around it, the skin is peeled back, the flesh exposed, as if left open after an operation. As for the face of the man, the customer, his two eyes stare up at the source of the beams, questioning, filled with anxiety. The lower part of his face seems to be hidden beneath a mask: the chin, the corners of the mouth are completely concealed by soap bubbles. The mouth cannot be seen clearly except as a black dime floating on the foam.

At first glance, the face seems extremely ugly and strange, but the more I look at it, the more it resembles mine. It is my own face, my inner face, I say [End Page 139] to myself. It is the face I wore when I rested my head on the back of the wooden chair and looked up at the face of the barber.

To follow the story, friend, you must know that about eight years ago I worked on a remote battlefield along the southwestern border. I was ordered at that time to return north to take part in an overseas art exhibition with other Ha Noi artists. The paintings and sketches I had made were numerous; they filled an entire shelter in our base camp located in the heart of the forest. I was allowed to select one-third of them. To transport even this fraction meant that the chief at each liaison post I passed had to assign one of his soldiers to help me carry the paintings.

On the journey, we had to cross a border area that was filled with enemy special forces. Food was scarce, and the area was well known as a breeding ground for malaria. We stopped for a day of rest before passing through it to get to a shelter on the hill above the liaison post. It was noon, and I was idly sketching the stones and trees in front of the shelter when a soldier with a pale complexion and bluish lips climbed up the steep slope, walked straight to...


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