I REGRET that it was only upon reading his obituary this month that I first learned of Nguyen Chi Thien. He was a courageous Vietnamese dissident who had spent nearly 30 years in prison for his opposition to communist repression, cruelty, and lies. Much of Nguyen's opposition was expressed in poetry, most famously "Flowers from Hell," a collection of poems he memorized behind bars, and only put down on paper after being released from prison in 1977.
The poems were published after he audaciously handed off the manuscript to British diplomats at their embassy in Hanoi, the AP obituary recalled. As he walked out of the embassy, "security agents were awaiting him, and he was promptly sent back to prison." He spent the next 12 years in Hoa Lo, the notorious Hanoi Hilton. While he was in captivity, "Flowers from Hell" was published; it earned the International Poetry Award in 1985. By the time he emigrated to the United States in 1995, his poems had achieved wide renown. His stanzas "became as familiar as songs," wrote Anh Do in The Los Angeles Times, and "continue to move the Vietnamese immigrant generation – and their sons and daughters."
By coincidence, the same newspaper page that carried Nguyen's obituary also ran a much longer story about Eric Hobsbawm, the famous British historian who died on Oct. 1 of pneumonia at age 95. The two men could hardly have been less alike.
Nguyen defied communist totalitarianism, sacrificing his freedom in defense of the truth. He refused to pretend that there could be anything noble or uplifiting – let alone ideal – about a revolutionary movement that pursued its ends through mass slaughter and enslavement. Like so many other dissidents, from Andrei Sakharov to Liu Xiaobo, he was a champion of liberty, sustaining hope and keeping conscience alive in the teeth of regime that persecutes decent men for their decency.