Lotusland by David Joiner

LotuslandLotusland starts out with the main protagonist Nathan, taking a long train journey from Saigon in the south of Vietnam where he lives, to Hanoi, the capital where he will visit his friend Anthony who he hasn’t been in touch with for some time.

Ironically, he reflects on the many things in his life that he perceives have always been a long wait for him. Ironic, because he is a character who has difficulty keeping a commitment, distracted too easily by the allure of the new and unknown, like the girl with the pink hair he meets on the train, or the attraction and undivided attention he gives to a new feature article he is asked to write, neglecting other commitments.

What follows is a well written story exploring the relationships between these two expatriate American men living in Vietnam, both their relationships to each other and the local women they marry/befriend and their contrasting attitudes to work.

Girl With a Fan by Công Quốc Hà Source: Wikipedia

Girl With a Fan by Công Quốc Hà
Source: Wikipedia

Nathan, a struggling writer, considers entering Anthony’s real estate business to make money, promising he is serious this time, though his word is rapidly thwarted by his developing relationship with the pink-haired woman, a traditional Vietnamese lacquer artist and gallery owner Le, in the weeks before he is supposed to leave Saigon and move to Hanoi.

“Somehow the mystery of the painting excited him even more than Anthony’s job offer. As he prepared to return to Saigon with the task of wrapping up his life there, the offer paled in importance to the chance he had of getting to know her.”

Anthony, now a successful business owner, husband and father of two small children he can’t communicate with, is barely in control of his rapid success or family life, unsure whether to rely on his friend, though it is clear he needs him for more than just work reasons.

The couples are like the escaped and the escapee, almost doomed from the beginning as they represent that often classic situation of the allure of a foreign culture, where the aims of the individuals are the opposite to each other despite their attraction.

Le has an interview at the American consulate for a visa and has made it clear to Nathan that that is the basis of her interest in him, a fact he seems intent on ignoring, preferring to pursue the illusion of a more intimate relationship.

“How’d it go?” He touched her hand, her arm, her cheek. “You’re still alive, and your body’s intact – all good signs.”

“It went okay,” she said, giving him a quick hug. “It’s hard to tell with Americans. They’re serious but also friendly. I don’t know what’s real. The worst part was dealing with the Vietnamese staff. They look down on people like me.”

It’s an often painful, uncomfortable read as David Joiner makes no excuses for his characters’ flaws and we witness that selfish aspect of humanity in which every person appears to want something from the other yet rarely puts the needs of the other before their own before acting or speaking.

Like a falling trail of dominoes, each person wants something from the next, though rarely is the desire reciprocated, individuals search for that thing just beyond their reach without appreciating what they have at hand. Blindness, illusion, disillusion, the impulse to escape.

It reminded me of a quote from Jamaica Kincaid’s expansive essay A Small Place, on her returning to the island of Antigua where she grew up, after many years of being away.

“That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives – most natives in the world—cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go – so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.”

David Joiner excels in evoking the sense of being in Hanoi, a city I visited 20 years ago and adored (see my photos above). I was quickly transported back there through his ability to develop a vivid sense of place and found those passages where the action is accompanied by this strong sense of the surroundings captivating.

“In Hanoi the French presence could still be felt, preserved in the architecture and layout, whereas in Saigon the atmosphere still harked back 30 or 40 years to the American era, the notion of aesthetics crowded out by the practicalities of war.”

I was shocked to find myself at the final page, an abrupt ending that leaves the reader with much to think about and likely to provoke discussion about the mix of post-war opportunity, life in foreign cultures, immigration, freedom and entrapment, capitalism and whether and or how it is possible to overcome the clash of cultures within a relationship.

Hanoi by Cheong Source: Wikipedia

Hanoi by Cheong
Source: Wikipedia

The Zenith

In 1996 I spent three months travelling in Asia, limiting my visit to four countries, India, Nepal, Vietnam and Thailand.

It was in Vietnam that I first travelled on my own and perhaps for this reason, it has always resonated deeply within me. It is a special place and I experienced it at a unique time, the city of Hanoi had no cars and most of its population travelled by bicycle, unlike the city of Saigon in the South full of the noise pollution of motorbikes. 090212_1801_IntheShadow1.jpg

That’s not to suggest it was easy to navigate those intersections, with bicycles coming from all directions, the ring of the bicycle bell a constant stream of warning as the masses somehow managed to criss-cross in opposite directions without accident. I watched that flow for a long time before I understood and dared to join it. The trick? Do not hesitate.

While in Hanoi, I decided to read a couple of Vietnamese authors, I was interested in reading something that came from a local perspective and not from the English-speaking perspective which seemed more prominent.  A young boy in the street sold me two books, Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War and Dương Thu Hương’s Paradise of the Blind, the latter a story that illustrated the effect of a rigid communist ideology on a family in the wake of the land reforms of the 1950’s, as narrated by a young woman travelling to Moscow in the 1980’s.

A quote on the back written by Grace Paley, confirmed my thoughts.

“At last a woman, a Vietnamese woman, tells us Vietnamese life: the village, the city, the repression and expansion, the middle peasant, the poor peasant, the years of exquisite food and no food, working in the Soviet Union – and all beautifully told so that we begin to understand not where we were for years, but where and how they – the Vietnamese – are now.”                                                      – Grace Paley

090212_1801_IntheShadow6.jpgThe author’s depiction of ordinary people, in both rural and urban Vietnam was compelling and the definition of terms at the back of the book, particularly of food and practical items was especially useful for me as I cycled my way around the city and out along the river, past markets and temples and saw how people lived, ate and spent their days. This book was the first Vietnamese novel published in the US (1993) I have since discovered, so no surprise that I had never come across this enlightened perspective before.

zenithDương Thu Hương now lives in exile in Paris and her latest novel The Zenith has recently been published. It gets off to a slow start initially, when Ho Chi Minh, the President looks back as a 70-year-old man at parts of his life with regret. He regrets the lack of contact with children that he fathered and the loss of a woman he loved, he regrets the distance that has come between himself as a man and the people he sought to represent.

Wishing to retrieve something of that contact, he attends the funeral of a woodcutter to pay his respects, only to realise the suffering his presence will have caused because of his distinguished position and the expectations that are carried with it should he grace them with his presence. He despairs at having lost sight of that which motivated him to first become involved in the revolution, to bring equality to all.

A bitter longing mixed with a searching curiosity flowers in his heart; he wants to attend the funeral of the woodsman because he wants to experience the funeral of a real father.

Things pick up in pace and interest when we learn more of the story of the woodcutter, his family and village, this one story perhaps seen to represent various stages in the country’s own experience of communism, both its idealistic benefits for the community and its destructive elements against the weak and innocent, when power, greed and envy are present within its leadership, turning even family members against each other. The story-telling reaches its zenith and had me totally convinced of the authenticity of the relationship between the wise sixty-something father/grandfather Mr Quang and his new 18-year-old bride Miss Ngan and relishing the way they managed the reactions of close family and their community with their provocative yet bona-fide marriage.

Of old, it was said: “Tears run downward.” So true.

“Filial love for parents can’t equal the ties of anxious love in a father’s soul for a child. Because when we love our parents we look up but when we love our children we look down. And according to the laws of heaven and earth, tears always flow downward. Especially whenever we recognise that as fathers we have done wrong. Hell itself will then open a door straight into the heart.”

It highlights the enormous gap that can grow between those who rule and have power and/or wealth and those who are trying to survive, just like the distance between rich and poor in a democratic society, similarly it exists between those who yield power and those who don’t in a communist society, trust breaking down within a community as people become increasingly desperate and open to being corrupted while others live in constant fear.

This is not a book to be read quickly, nor even understood immediately. I continue to think about what I read and what it attempted to portray about society, leadership, workers, family and the effect of power and its oft great distance from the reality of how people live, the destructiveness of jealousy and the perseverance of those who will never be compromised, who will always fight for what they perceive is good and right.

The country, its writers and message continue to allure and despite all the suffering, both past and present, there remains for me a quiet tranquility that pervades it, a steadfast patience and determination I admire.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by NetGalley on behalf of the publisher.

In the Shadow of the Banyan

Early morning in Hanoi, Vietnam

The countries, culture and people of Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma and the surrounding area interest me. Vietnam was the first country I travelled solo in and while I was there, in addition to the cultural immersion, I also enjoyed reading the works of two local authors, which I purchased from a street vendor, Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War and Duong Thu Huong’s Paradise of the Blind, both of which are excellent.

We learn a little how they live, what they eat and how a soldier deals with the aftermath of war. These occasional books translated into English provide an important insight into real experiences and a way of thinking that cannot be portrayed by any other than those who were raised there. Their experiences often cause us to question our own perspective, our knowledge, and beseech us to see things from another point of view. It is a joy therefore to come across a publisher of who said:

When I came to S&S, I told everyone here I wanted to publish books that deepen the cultural conversation and take readers to places they couldn’t otherwise go. – Jonathan Karp, Simon & Schuster

This is certainly the case with Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, narrated from the perspective of 7-year-old Raami, a girl whose experiences reflect the author’s own, though she has chosen to fictionalise her story.

 It isn’t so much the story of the Khmer Rouge experience, of genocide, or even of loss and tragedy. What I wanted to articulate is something more universal, more indicative, I believe, of the human experience our struggle to hang onto life, our desire to live, even in the most awful circumstances. – Vaddey Ratner

Lest we forget, Hanoi, Vietnam

The daughter of royalty, although a failed, corrupt democracy ruled, she and her family were evicted by the revolutionary Khmer Rouge, a marginal guerrilla group – whose leaders were from the same intellectual class as Ratner’s well-educated father, however who held radical ideals to transform the social fabric by destroying traditional family, social and wealth connections and creating an experimental collective.

Their revolution took the form of putting the population into work camps in living conditions worse than peasants. Whether driven by fear, paranoia or disillusionment, they ruthlessly continued to seek out and judge people as the enemy, a definition that moved and changed like the current in the Mekong itself until through murder, disease or starvation scholars estimate that as many as a third of the population (1-2 million) died. The regime was finally overthrown by the Vietnamese military in January 1979.

Ratner tells the story of Raami, physically challenged from a polio defect which shortened one of her legs, her experience during the period of exile with her parents and sister, how she survived the extreme living and working conditions and what it taught her along the way. She remembers the stories and poems that her father shared with her and they continue to be a source of strength for her throughout her life.

“Do you know why I told you stories Raami?” he asked. I shook my head. I knew nothing, understood nothing.

“When I thought you couldn’t walk, I wanted to make sure you could fly.” His voice was calm, soothing, as if it were just another evening, another conversation.

“I told you stories to give you wings, Raami, so that you would never be trapped by anything – your name, your title, the limits of your body, this world’s suffering.”

It is a humbling story and frightening to perceive, yet dealt with by Ratner in a way that allows us to acknowledge and attempt to understand something of the seemingly never-ending cycle of oppression, idealism, revolution and the dangers inherent when revolutionary intent is hijacked by power, destroyed by paranoia and becomes tyrannical, while preserving the few special moments that continue to pass between people despite the danger posed by their selfless acts.

Terrible as it is and damaged as they are, it is those who survive and who are still able to maintain some belief in the human spirit and humanity that bring one of the few gifts that such terror evokes. It is a price no person would ever wish to pay.

For all the loss and tragedy I have known, my life has taught me that the human spirit, like the lifted hands of the blind, will rise above chaos and destruction, as wings in flight.

The author has succeeded in taking this sad chapter in her country’s history and showing us some of its beauty and culture, sharing memories and thoughts that can never be erased and putting them into a new form, this literary work, which we are privileged for it to be shared in English.

In a sense it leaves us puzzled and perplexed, just as witnessed in Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love, yet another tyrannical regime that loses its way to the detriment of its people. The stories can be shared and passed on, but they also represent a kind of grief for a way of life now lost to future generations.

Note: This was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.