Do we really need yet another Vietnam memoir? Yes, as it turns out. True, every second American who debarked in Saigon has written about the experience, but there are far fewer accounts of the war by Vietnamese in English, and much of what exists, on both the northern and southern sides, is marred by propaganda. Few books have combined the historical scope and the literary skill to give the foreign reader a sense of events from a Vietnamese perspective. Le Ly Hayslip’s “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places” gave us the war through the eyes of a South Vietnamese peasant girl turned sex worker, while Nguyen Qui Duc’s “Where the Ashes Are” told us what it was like to watch his father, a high-ranking official in Hue, be taken captive by the Vietcong. Bao Ninh’s autobiographical novel “The Sorrow of War” gave us the viewpoint of a disillusioned North Vietnamese grunt. And now we can add Andrew Pham’s “Eaves of Heaven” to this list of indispensable books.
It is not exactly a memoir. Pham’s earlier book, “Catfish and Mandala” (1999), told his own story, from his birth in Saigon in the early ’70s through his family’s journey as boat people to California, and on to his first return to Vietnam in the 1990s. “The Eaves of Heaven” is the story of Pham’s father, which Pham tells, with a good deal of literary flourish, in his father’s voice. This attempt at impersonation is risky: after all, writing about oneself is easy, but telling the truth about one’s father is a far graver affair. And yet Pham pulls it off.
It helps that the story perfectly traces the arc of 20th-century Vietnamese history. Pham’s father, Thong Van Pham, was born in the mid-1930s into a family of feudal landowners in the Red River delta, about 40 miles southeast of Hanoi. Thong’s uncle was the lord of the estate and the magistrate of the district, his father a playboy younger brother who spent most of his time enjoying the pleasures of French colonial Hanoi. Thong grew up in the countryside, pitching rocks and staging pet-cricket fights with the village boys. Then history intruded. The Japanese seized French Indochina, and as the war turned against them they requisitioned so much rice that hundreds of thousands of peasants starved. After the Japanese were driven out in 1945, Ho Chi Minh’s Communists declared Vietnam independent but were soon locked in a guerrilla war against returning French forces. Meanwhile, the Communists were busy assassinating members of the rival Nationalist Party and anyone deemed a French collaborator — including Thong’s uncle, whose post of magistrate made him a colonial official.
After his mother died giving birth to her fourth child, the family decamped for Hanoi, where they set up an inn that quickly degenerated into a profitable whorehouse for French soldiers, supporting Thong’s father’s growing opium habit. When the Communists defeated the French and took over North Vietnam in 1954, the family headed south to Saigon, where they opened a noodle shop that failed and slid into poverty. Thong did well in school, landed a teaching job and started a family, but was drafted in 1963 as the war geared up. He ended up as the leader of a Rural Development Task Force, running combined village-level military defense and economic development teams in concert with Usaid — the same counterinsurgency tactics the United States is now attempting in Iraq. After a few terrifying combat episodes, his life settled into a period of uneasy peace, dominated by status competitions with his old high school friends, overshadowed by the sense that their corrupt, incompetent government would never hold out against the Communists without continued American military support. And then, after that support was withdrawn, came the crash.
Andrew Pham tells his father’s story in the fashionable hopscotch nonchronological exposition one finds these days in everything from TV’s “Lost” to Denis Johnson’s Vietnam novel of last year, “Tree of Smoke.” The strategy may at first be confusing, but it gathers force as it goes along. The cut-up narrative works in part because the scenes Thong Van Pham has given his son to work with are so vivid, authentic and strange: watching a sadistic Algerian legionnaire disembowel a hapless farmer in front of his village, discussing French novels with the girls who turn tricks at his father’s Hanoi inn (and spying on them through peepholes), gossiping about politics in a friend’s swank Saigon bachelor pad, waiting for death in a postwar re-education camp. (Prisoners called for execution leave their meager possessions behind in the communal cell. “Those of us who remained dared not use their belongings for fear of inheriting the same bad luck. Next to the toilet, a pile of goods collected like bones.”) By contrast, the characterization of Andrew’s mother feels generically sweet: it’s as though the author has not granted himself permission to freely imagine the interior of his parents’ relationship.
It is often said that the Vietnamese conception of history is circular rather than linear: the same episodes recur over and over, with only the details altered. “The Eaves of Heaven” has a similar feel. Thong Van Pham is constantly fleeing and rebuilding in the midst of war, watching world after world vanish, from the feudal estate of his childhood to the Hanoi of the ’50s to the Saigon of the ’70s. He and his son have done us the extraordinary service of bringing a few pieces of those worlds back again.
Matt Steinglass is a journalist based in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Source : New York Times (Sunday Book Review, July 13, 2008)