Tag Archives: diaspora

The Moroccan Jewish diaspora, memory, etc.

I’m far from sure why I find Marcel Bénabou’s (1939-) knotted books interesting. The four that have been translated into English (all published by the University of Nebraska Press) are mostly about not being able to write the books he has long wanted to write. Bénabou, who was raised in a Jewish community in Meknès, Morocco and is a professor emeritus of ancient history (specializing in Roman North Africa) at the Paris Diderot University wanted what became Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun: A Family Epic to be titled One Always Writes the Same Book. There are many “ones” about whom this is true Bénabou’s own books have different subjects, even if the books are mostly about the inability to write the book about the subject Bénabou chose. His book Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books is not about someone else having written his books but about failing to write more than fragments of the books (not just books, but masterpieces) that he planned, wanted to write, and tried to write, though only producing a few fragments that did not satisfy his high-vaulting ambitions. Along the way, that book also imparted some information about the author’s North African Jewish background.

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The closest of his books to a conventional narrative is Écrire sur Tamara/To Write on Tamara?, about which—in good Bénabou fashion—I have been unable to write a review of for some time since I read it. It includes what he presents as attempts dating back to the 1950s to write about his first great love, a sickly but very romantic girl whom he loved when he first came to Paris as a student and who died. Insofar as it is a memoir rather than a book about not being able to write a memoir of his young love, it has some overlap of characters with the book about (not being able to write the epic account of) his native Moroccan Jewish community and forebearers, Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun. The parents and sister and his best friend who was aspiring to write a novel when both were high school students in Morocco appear in both books. There is no mention of Tamara in Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun. The three names are Bénabou’s three grandfathers, none of whom he knew. He only has three because of the endogamy of his natal community (and five instead of eight great-grandfathers).

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Although not by nature (or commitment) a narrative writer, Bénabou does manage to tell something about his forebearers and about the now-vanished community of his childhood and youth in the French neo-colony (protectorate). Many of the Meknès Jews emigrated to Israel after Moroccan independence in 1956 and subsequent heightened persecution of Jews. Bénabou himself has lived in Paris since he went there as a student in 1957.

Along with some analysis of the culture and history of Moroccan Jewish communities and the place of his ancestors (both with rising and declining fortunes), he writes about how he came to view books as sacred and to want to write an epic about his unknown or forgotten people (Sephardic Jews living in a world not invoked by the various writings about Ashkenazic villages and ghettoes in Poland and the Ukraine with strange things such as fur hats: “These Jews in the cold, snow, and mud seemed to me incredibly [and therefore unusably] exotic…. I could not imagine that a Jewish life could be led in any other way than the constant complicity of the sun and the blue sky ” I can see Racine is not a suitable model, but I’m less clear about why Tacitus could not be one). He writes about various models that failed him or that he failed (including W, the recreation of a childhood about which he did not remember anything by Bénabou’s close friend and collaborator in the Workshop of Potential Literature (OULIPO), Georges Perec. There is something reminiscent of Borges in the summaries of the style and substance of books Bénabou sought to write, but didn’t. (And his position as a successful Parisian with an anti-nostalgic nostalgia for North Africa is reminiscent of the Jacques Derrida who appeared in the movie “Derrida” shortly before his death.)

Over time, the aging author’s memories faded and he discovered there was some documentation of the past that he believed would be lost if he did not write a comprehensive account. Moreover, Bénabou was put off by the egocentrism. He claimed that he “had been borne along by the illusion that I was merely a narrator whose task was to finally give a voice to all those whom I had pretensiously called ‘my people’; I realized that in fact I myself was making up most of the space in order to tell a few old personal secrets I had too carefully kept. I was afraid of having upstaged in this way the people I initially wanted to honor” (in this he would be like many contemporary “reflexive” anthropologists). He also came to recognize that his “mind was much too abstract, much too attracted to systems and combinatory games to be able to give birth to flesh and blood characters” and is much better at telling and commenting on than in showing (though better at showing than he gives himself credit for).

(Given that Bénabou has seemingly read everything, it seems odd to me that he does not mention The Tongue Set Free, the great memoir of growing up in another Sephardic community by Elias Canetti, a writer whose fictional masterpiece is about a bibliomaniac (and an unliterary housekeeper).)

The result is whatever the nonfiction analog of metafiction is. Metamemoir about trying to write a memoir and hobbled by more than doubt in the accuracy of the author’s memoir? The result, despite all the self-doubt and self-criticism, is not without charm and manages to convey some things about the vanished lifeways and about Bénabou’s mother as well as about the patriarchs named in the title. Bénabou did not deliver the book he felt that the history of Meknès Jews deserved, but did produce an often witty if generally melancholic postmodernist monument to his background. If they were not epic heroes, if Marcel Bénabou is neither an epic hero nor an epic writer, the book he did produce shows that Someone Was There. And, as with the library of titles Borges imagined, filling out the volumes might be less interesting than the sketches of the books that don’t exist.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

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Luminous essays about exile and memory from André Aciman

Born in Alexandria on the second day of 1951, when it was still the cosmopolitan port city of Alexander Durell’s Alexandria Quartet and Constantine Cavafy’s elegies, André Aciman wrote a remarkably un-self-pitying memoir of his family being forced to sell out at a pittance and get Out of Egypt (the book was published in 1995).

What we now call “ethnic cleansing” of non-Muslims (including Arab ones) began with the creation of Israel and the 1948 war in which Arab armies failed to annihilate it and escalated after the 1956 “Suez crisis.” The world of wealth the author’s family had enjoyed in Alexandria for half a century eroded very rapidly before he and they left in 1956. Out of Egypt (like the more recent memoir of extrusion from Iraq  of Ariel Sabar and  Marcel Bénabou  Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun: A Family Epic) is a vivid reminder that if Israel is an apartheid state, so are all of its neighbors, including even the officially secular state of Turkey from which I just returned. Jews were forced out of places they had lived for generations, and their assets looted across the Middle East. Christians have not fared much better in post-WWII Arab or Turkish or Persian nationalist pogroms (Coptic Christians are much persecuted in contemporary Egypt and Syraic Christians forced out of Turkey are far worse off than they were under the rule of early Ottoman sultans such as Suleiman the Magnificent; Turkey is now 99% Muslim having driven off or slaughtered Armenian, Greek, and Syraic Christians.)

Aciman is not a political writer, a Zionist in even the blandest sense, nor a religiously observant Jews. His essay “In a Double Exile” in False Papers records his discomfort with Passover seders and keen sense of irony about celebrating flight from Egypt, something he did not want to repeat millennia later. Even writing about a visit to Alexandria in “Alexandria: The Capital of Memory” (the appellation is Durrell’s) Aciman does not write with bitterness about the rarely visited cemetery where one of his grandfather’s is buried (I remember from Out of Egypt that his grandfathers did not get along with each other and that neither had much interest in Egypt).
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False Papers collects eleven essays and three “tales.” The latter, of which “Arbitrage” seems to me the best, strike me as nonfiction, though each involves a story Aciman tried to imagine and write (including one of visiting his grandfather’s grave, as he imagine it years before he actually made the visit).

Among the essays that I found particularly strong was “Becket’s Winter,” with which I could readily identify, having also been fascinated by the movie starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole; “A Late Lunch” in which the author takes a son to a meeting with the author’s aged father and speculates about how his son will remember it and him in the future; “Letter from Illier-Combray” in which he finds the house written about by Marcel Proust smaller than he expected; and “In the Muslim City of Bethlehem,” an account of preparations for Christmas with its influx of Greek, Armenian, Roman Catholic, and Protestant Christians who despise each other in the town that had in 1996 just been ceded to Palestinian control.

Of three essays about changing features of Manhattan, the one that seems to me the strongest (for someone with no nostalgia for any of the tree foci) is Straus Park on the upper West Side (“Shadow Cities”). Aciman is hyper-aware of his Proustian tendency to imagine time lost (and Albertines vanished) while storing away memories to be written later and not much living in the moment and enjoying any pleasures except those of anticipating mourning their loss. With a focus somewhat more on a person, though still very much a person in particular places, “Counterintuition” analyzes Aciman’s Proustian and Stendahlian pathologies.

“Counterintuition” also includes a pattern central to Aciman’s first novel (published in 2007) and inscribed in its title Call Me By Your Name in that tale of a very different (in time, place, gender, and mutuality) attempt at intimacy. The novel drips with poignant memories of love in the past, but seems to me to invoke less cerebral pleasures, as well as a sharing of memories of a passionate relationship from the past that is quite unlike the mournfully ironic Les Temps retrouvé (The Past Regained) that concludes Proust’s vast roman fleuve.

Aciman’s syntax is not asthmatic, and is easier to read (though quite beautifully crafted) than Proust’s. Aciman is a keen analysis of the workings of memory, including Proust’s, Stendahl’s, and his own. He is also a keen analyst of exile, involuntary diaspora, not just from Egypt but from Europe (particularly Paris, but also Rome when he longed to be in Paris if he could not be in an already vanished Jewish world of Alexandria).

©2011, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

A memoir about straddling the tectonic plates of Islam and modernism

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a generally sound injunction. Yet sometimes the book inside a cover that catches the eye pays off the promise of the cover. One instance is the From the Land of the Green Ghosts, a memoir by Pascal Khoo Thwe of growing up in a non-Burmen tribe (Padaung) in Burma, going to college in Rangoon, and then in Cambridge. The dove on a turban of a bright-eyed brown-skinned boy on the cover of West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story (published in 2002) is another instance both of a striking cover photo but of an excellent culture-crossing memoir. It author, Tamim Ansary, was born and spent his first years within the enclave in Kabul of what he refers to as a “clan” (and I would call an “extended family,” since I think that a “clan” has a headman), then went to a model modernizing school that pioneered co-education, then went to the United States with his Finnish-American mother, where he attended Reed College, underwent a hippie phase, tried to return via Iran to see what was going on in his homeland in the first years of Iran’s Islamic “revolution.” The book also reflects on the Taliban, and the vengances (including “nuking Afghanistan”) advocated after 9/11.

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The memoir has three main parts. The first recalls “the lost world” of Ansary’s youth in an Afghanistan that he describes as not substantially differing from the Neolithic era. The second focuses on a journey across North Africa in 1979. The third part discusses his life in America, which included attempts to organize US West Coast Afghan-Americans to aid refugees from the Soviet invasion and later mujahedeen and Taliban oppressions. Appended is an e-mail Ansary wrote 9/12/01 that had very wide circulation and that clearly stated what the subcontracting/privatization mentality of the Bush administration refused to understand. The 9/12 e-mail brought Ansary to public prominence, but the quality of his book does not depend on the prophetic insights of what were the first words heard in the west after the airliner-hijacking attacks about al-Quaeda and the Taliban from a native of Afghanistan.

The first part of the book is, perhaps, the most unique contribution. Ansary attempts to explain what it was like to live in a walled family enclosure: not just the insularity (that seems suffocating to those of us socialized for privacy and autonomy), but the security of being part of a clan. “Being at home with the group gave them the satisfactions we [that is westerners] associate with solitude—ease, comfort and the freedom to let down one’s guard.” I think this is also relevant to group-oriented Japanese, to take one non-Muslim instance. The small world of the compound was one in which women, who were veiled when they ventured outside it, had freedom of movement and were not veiled.

The first part also describes his restive Finnish-American mother (met while his father was a student in the US) and some accommodation of her alienness: “The family took her in as the Permanent Guest, always to be honored, loved and cared for. Afghan society settled on treating her as an exception to the rules of gender: she was considered neither female nor male, but American.” (Such a status has recurrently been invoked for female anthropologist fieldworkers in patriarchal societies in which women have no public role.)

Ansary (at least in the retrospective gaze of the memoirist) is more aware of his privileged existence, as a son of the elite, than André Aciman was in his memoir Out of Egypt. The family name “Ansary” designates a descendant of the people who helped Mohammed escape from Medina, so has high prestige within dar-al-Islam. Ansary’s father was a poet (in a culture in which poetry is very highly valued), one of the first four Afghans who went to college in the west, a literature professor, and later a government official. The king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, and his cousin Mohammad Daoud Khan, the prime minister—were trying to modernize Afghanistan during the late-1950s and thereafter. Part of the modernization—that enraged the imams in Kandahar—was unveiling women. (In 1959, Daoud had challenged Afghanistan’s imams to show him the passage in the Qu’ran that mandated the veil. When they could not, he declared the veil un-Islamic, and the women of the royal family bared their faces in public.”) The “slippery slope” of modernization continued with co-education, in which Ansary’s sister was one of the few girls thrust into heretofore all-male classes.

Daoud sought Soviet aid, which led to a Soviet puppet regime, and the arming of Islamists (including the forerunners of al-Quaeda) by the Reagan administration. This bled the Soviets. Following the Soviet retreat, the warlord era (1989-1993) segued into Taliban domination and its concerted efforts to roll back modernization (including banning possession of transistor radios and razor blades and limitations on women far in excess of those of the traditional culture of Ansary’s childhood).

One particularly interesting point that Ansary makes is that the Taliban zealots had mostly not grown up in traditional Afghanistan, but in refugee camps inside Pakistan with a fragmented social structure, indoctrination by anti-western (anti-modernist) zealots and shamed in multiple ways, and fantasies about a past that never existed.

The second part is a darkly comic account of 1979 travel misadventures in North Africa and eastward (including great difficulty in cashing American Express travelers’ checks) with a sometimes farcical but troubling discovery of what being Muslim meant to many young Muslims inspired by Khomeni’s Islamism.

Ansary’s assimilation into American life is a more familiar story. What particularly stands out in it is his account of the profusion of Afghan American groups. No one wanted to join an existing group, assuming that all the plum leadership roles had already been taken. Better to start one’s own and hope for greater success in becoming the organization (government in exile) that the US would impose. (Analogies to Iraq are too obvious to elaborate upon.)

The book provides insight into a vanished world, and the all-too-eventful history of Afghanistan in the second half of the twentieth century, although, between Ansary’s privileged status and the lack of experience of it of those who grew up in the 1980s and thereafter, generalizability is limited. His younger brother, Riaz, who had less experience of the traditional society, is the family member who became a zealous Islamist (living in Ameica). The book also shows how Islamism looks to a non-Islamist Muslim, who was appalled by the Taliban and loathed Osama Bin-Laden long before 9/11/2001. Ansary has observed and reflected upon the uncomfortable widening divide between the postmodernist west and the antimodernist mobilization that is sometimes misidentified as “fundamentalism” (in multiple religions, not just Islam) in his life’s trajectory (to the west), in traveling, and within his (nuclear) family. What he has to say is in this engagingly written book is of interest even beyond putting a human face on the agonies of Afghan experiences.

 

©2006, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

A graphic memoir of a complex family in Vietnam and America

The front cover bills Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do (2017) as an “Illustrated memoir.” Inside the jacket cover it is billed as a “graphic novel.” It is nonfiction, not a novel, and “illustrated” suggests a higher text:picture ratio than the book has. So, why not “graphic memoir”? There is still a bit of a problem with this description in that the book is based on the memories of the author’s parents as well as her own, not least in the escape from Vietnam parts.

Even the cover illustration with her parents and the three children who lived to emigrate from Vietnam is a simplification. The family history is very complicated in terms of class and political alignments, with ancestors (grandparents) in the Viet Minh as well as among those who fled from north to south when the country was partitioned at the 17th parallel in 1954. Her parents overshot Saigon and became teachers in the far south of South Vietnam.

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Thi Bui was born in Saigon in 1975, the year the communists overran what had been South Vietnam. Her mother was 30 and would be very (8 months) pregnant when they fled by boat, giving birth to the boy Tam in a refugee camp in Malaysia. Typical of the unnecessarily jangled structuring of the book (which begins with the author giving birth to her own son in New York in 2005), the order of birth (including of children who died as infants) is 1978, 1974, 1975, 1968, 1966, 1965.

The book frequently skips around in time and place. I have to say that a chronological ordering would have been more reader-friendly. I also have to say that I find the colors (a reddish sepia augmenting black and white and the background for land, sky, and water) wearying.

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(jacket photo of Thi Bui)

Still the stories of life in Vietnam and in America (initially, in 1978, crowded into a two-bedroom house in Hammond, Indiana with Thi’s mother’s sister and her husband and their five children, then in the warmer climate of California) are clear with more drama than anyone would want, but also some mordant humor. The book ends with hopes that her son (with her Caucasian husband, Travis) will live without the traumas of war and loss.

I’m not sure whether the reason I prefer Vietnamerica is that I read it first or because I’m man. Both books show and tell stories of complicated family histories, terrifying escapes, and difficult adjustments of Vietnamese refugees getting to the US

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Thanks to Fred Gleach for calling my attention to this new hardback book (from esteemed artbook publisher, Abrams).

Leaving Las Vegas (after fleeing Vietnam)

I think that Vu Tran’s impressive debut novel, Dragonfish (2015) is “genre-blending” rather than “genre blurring.” It is a detective story in the noir subgenre of trying to find a troubled, enigmatic woman. I would not label Vietnamese refugee (ca. 1977 by boat) Hong/Suzy (born in 1953) as a “femme fatale,” but Robert, the (white) Oakland policeman (born in 1955, I think) who is the narrator, will never get over his ex-wife, who left him after eight rather manic-depressive years. There is the tortured romance angle (Hong’s second and third marriages). The novel is also a ghost story and alternates between Robert’s trips to Las Vegas to find and/or avenge her, and a long account of a horrific nine-days at sea between Vietnam and Malaysia that Hong wrote for the daughter whom she took with her. (“Refugee narrative” is another of the genres juxtaposed in the book.)

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Her first husband, back in Vietnam, had been a captain in the AVN air force, who was shipped north for prolonged “re-education”/torture, and returned after being diagnosed with advanced and terminal cancer. He did not want their daughter to remember him dying and dispatched them on the nearly fatal boat trip, one that was fatal to several other passengers. On the Malaysian island that has been made into a refugee camp, mother and daughter watch a brutal 31-year-old former AVN soldier and his very handsome young (7?) son. (The wife/mother drowned on the boat in which the other four successfully fled.)

In America the father (Son/Sonny Nguyen) and son (Jonathan Nguyen) prosper, though the father is a heavy drinker and high stakes gambler. Jonathan runs some restaurants and tries to minimize damage all around, including to Robert, who learns that Son had thrown Hong down a staircase and decided to go rough him up. By the end of the novel, the reader will believe that Jonathan tried to protect Jonathan.

There are hired , though Son has plenty of muscles in his own bullish body, plus a Vietnamese best friend of Hong’s, “Happy,” who has become a Las Vegas casino dealer… and who also tries to protect Robert. And I have failed to mention that Hong abandoned her daughter, Mai, after a year or so living with her late husband’s uncle (“great uncle” in standard American usage, though Tran has him referred to as “grand uncle”). Mai grew up to be a professional poker player.

I find it hard to believe that she has no memory of her father from her last year in Vietnam (when she was five years old, the same age as the author when he and his mother escaped by boat to Malaysia; his father, who had been a air force captain, had left before he was born) or of the surrogate father and his son (Son and Jonathan), each of whom saved her life while all were in the Malaysian refugee camp. I find it even harder to believe that the terminally traumatized Hong could write so smooth a narrative of her life in Vietnam, Malaysia, and California with the daughter whom she abandoned after all the travail of saving her and getting her to America. (Written to Mai, who has not seen her for two decades, it comes in three installments, including two pages at the onset of the book.)

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(2015 photo by Jeffrey Beall from Creative Commons)

Oddly, I find the Saigon-born (ca. 1975) author’s narration by the white cop more credible than that of the Vietnamese refugee. (In a NPR interview he said that “I didn’t have to fight to get that [Hong’s] voice out.”)T his somewhat amuses me given all the huffing and puffing about “appropriation” of “the other,” which is never applied to nonwhite writers writing of/about white characters. Yes, I recognize that though Vietnam-born, Tran is not a woman, either, and I really would not want the long narrative in the broken English of Happy’s dialogue. Moreover, the recollections of Malaysian exile are quite interesting. And the melancholy of Robert’s quixotic Las Vegas crusades and the atmosphere of Las Vegas are very convincingly conveyed by Tran. (BTW, he grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, apart from any Vietnamese American enclave. He teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago.)

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Vietnamese orphans before and after “Operation Babylift”

Aimee Phan was born in 1977 in Orange County, so had no personal experience/memory of “Operation Babylift,” in which 10,300 infants and children were airlifted from Saigon to the United States before the city fell to the People’s Army of Vietnam. The eight stories in We Should Never Meet, published in 2004 (when the author was 27) are about orphans and their caregivers. Four are set in Vietnam (three before Operation Babylift; the last with two orphans revisiting Saigon and a nearby orphanage and the Vietcong’s Cu Chi tunnels). The other four center on orphans resettled in Phan’s native Orange County, where the heaviest concentration of Vietnamese American live.

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Though Phan is not an orphan and was not born in Vietnam, the stories are convincing to me (unlike her, I was adopted, as some of them were) both about the chaos of orphanages in the final stages of the Republic of Vietnam and about the abandonment neuroses of those who had been evacuated and grew up in Orange County (whether in foster care or as adopted children). The white Americans who devoted time and resources to helping the children survive, both in South Vietnam and in the US, may sometimes be clueless, but are seen in the texts as well-intentioned. Bridget, a pediatrician who volunteered to go to a Saigon for two months, leaving behind her own two-year-old and husband in “Bound” is not ineffectual. She clearly saved lives, though just as clearly was delusional about being able to go back and continue her old life and now older family along with a Vietnamese baby boy. The last two stories in the book, “Bound” and “Motherland” end optimistically. The plane filled with orphans on which Bridget leaves makes it out (as one plane did not).

The most anti-American character in the book, Vinh, is also the most despicable, preying on other Vietnamese refugees whom he (and his gang) know do not trust police and are unlikely to seek their aid. For me “Visitors” was the most heartbreaking story in the collection. Vinh feels some regret for what he does, which undoes none of the damage to the refugee family(/ies) he victimizes (also in the title story in which another sympathetic Vietnamese character is attacked).

Kim, another recurring character, has wisely broken up with Vinh, but is relatively nihilistic and envious of Mai, the smart and accomplished girl who had been placed in foster care with Kim and Vinh more than once. Kim was adopted, but returned after a month, whereas Mai was kept by a pair of devoted foster parents, who did not adopt her and were taking in a seven-year old Vietnamese orphan when she went off to college (Emancipation).

The whole is more than the sum of the parts, but less than a sustained novel. There is much more I would like to know about various characters. I wouldn’t say that the stories lack endings (like so many New Yorker stories), but they tend to be somewhat open endings, cutting away from the uncertainties the characters feel and from closure. Each set of stories (those leading to and those leading from Operation Babylift) proceeds in chronological order, but the alternation does not work for me, though I could have read the four orphans in Saigon stories first and then the four adolescent Vietnamese orphans in Orange County ones. Having followed Phan’s ordering of chapters, I don’t know if the grouping would have enhanced coherence, but I think I’d recommend reading the 3rd, 5th, and 7th before reading the 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 8th (mindful that the 8th casts light on where the 7th left off, literally in midair).

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(jacket photo of author ca. 2004)

 

Phan’s first novel, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong, was published in 2012. It juxtaposes escape from and return to Vietnam with immigrant lives (of two families of refugees) in France and California with fractured chronology and two sets of letters as well as the main narration.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Another gripping and moving nonfiction tale by Andrew X. Pham—His father’s

I was not the only reader who was very impressed by Andrew Pham’s combination memoir of fleeing Vietnam as a child and returning and bicycling across it as a young adult: Catfish and Mandala won the 1999 Kiriyama Book Prize.

Pham’s Eaves of Heaven (nominated for a National Book Award) is a memoir in his father’s voice as written in English by his son. Thong Van Pham, lived in way too interesting times (to borrow from the Chinese curse): he was a child during the Japanese occupation, the son of rural gentry in northern Vietnam during the war for independence from French colonialism, drafted and later recalled to the South Vietnamese (ARVN) military.

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Readers of memoirs by Americans (A Rumor of War) and North Vietnamese (Sorrow of War) who fought in the third of the elder Pham’s three wars have expressed considerable contempt for the skills and valor of ARVN troops. The senior Pham recalls great frustration at the corruption and failures of will and imagination of commanders (not least one who left his unit to be slaughtered), but also valor of some frontline ARVN soldiers (also see Perfume Dreams).

I wonder if his analysis of communist domination of the Viet-Minh fighting the French in the 1950s was as clear then as in retrospects, though I incline to believe that the US abandoning the government it had put in place (violating the Geneva Accords for a nationwide election, then greenlighting the coup against the Diems, greenlighting excluding Gen. Minh from the last RVN presidential election) was unthinkable to those who had fought on the American side of Pham’s third war.

The book ends after a stint in “re-education” prison before the Phams became boat people fleeing Vietnam (horrors covered in Catfish). Life in rural northern Vietnam during Japanese and French occupation and during the war of Independence, life in Hanoi before the French left, life in Saigon and in the ARVN, and in “re-education” prison are all vividly portrayed. The cutting back and forth seems distracting to me, though time and place for each chapter are specified. I would have preferred a chronological structure. Would the reader fail to notice the recurrence of brutalities, of fleeing and rebuilding, if the chronology was straightforward? I don’t think so.

The action scenes, notably a fight that an Algerian legionnaire forces a peasant into and the Vietcong attack on the paramilitary force Pham commands, are very vivid, as is the bitter taste of communist purges of nationalists within the anticolonial struggle of the early 1950s.

The book is not at all a rant. There are comic incidents, love stories, vivid characters, as well as the horrors of torture and battle. Pham recalls his mother (who died in childbirth at the age of 31) telling him that “the eaves of heaven had a way of turning in cycles, of dealing both blows and recompenses.” The balance seems to me uneven; to amend Wright Morris slightly: real losses and temporarily imagined gains.

©2009, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

[In addition to collaborating on this book, the Phams collaborated on translating Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diaries of Dr. Thuy Tram.]