Then the guitarist began strumming the chords of another song. They do sing songs like this, Man said. It was Yesterday by the Beatles. As the three of us joined in singing, my eyes grew moist. What was it like to live in a time when one’s fate was not war, when one was not led by the craven and the corrupt, when one’s country was not a basket case kept alive only through the intravenous drip of American aid? I knew none of these young soldiers around me except for my blood brothers and yet I confess that I felt for them all, lost in their sense that within days they would be dead, or wounded, or imprisoned, or humiliated, or abandoned, or forgotten. They were my enemies, and yet they were also brothers-in-arms. Their beloved city was about to fall, but mine was soon to be liberated. It was the end of their world, but only a shifting of worlds for me. So it was that for two minutes we sang with all our hearts, feeling only for the past and turning our gaze from the future, swimmers doing the backstroke toward a waterfall.
I posted on Vietnam back in October 2014, on the long poem The Tale of Kieu, but since then I decided to limit myself to novels, so I had to re-read Vietnam. No hardship, for I discovered this wonderful book which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
It begins with the chaotic US evacuation as Saigon fell to the communist North Vietnamese in 1975, the end of the Vietnam War as it is known in the West. The protagonist, a captain, flees to the US with his general, who little suspects that the captain is spying for the communists. He becomes enmeshed in and apparently enjoys the American way of life. The captain is split in many ways – half French half Vietnamese, a communist who lived under capitalism in South Vietnam and the US, a Vietnamese and an American. In fact he is a symbol of the split personality of Vietnam itself – North/South, Communist/Capitalist, not to mention of the US, whose double standards of the time are also on full display. There are some unforgettable scenes – the desperate last snafu days as the US fled South Vietnam, the murder, the interrogation, and the Hollywood war movie for which the captain is a reluctant and ignored consultant, and which ends up like a mini war in itself.
Nguyen’s writing is spectacular, dripping with all the irony the situation begs for (his handler is literally a ‘faceless man’, and I’m sure that a ‘sleeper’ agent would find it difficult to sleep!) It was maybe the hardest book so far to choose just one quote to showcase, I wanted to share so many! I can’t recommend it too highly.
NGUYEN, Viet Thanh (1971 – ), The Sympathizer, London, Corsair, 2016, ISBN 978-1-4721-51360 (first published 2015)
‘The sea looks the same as in the moving pictures, only bigger.’
Camila had heard about the moving pictures which were being shown at the Hundred Doors, close to the cathedral, but she had no idea what they were like. However, after what her cousin had said, she could easily imagine them as she stared at the sea. Everything in motion. Nothing stable. Pictures mingling with other pictures, shifting, breaking in pieces to form a new image every second, in a state that was not solid, not liquid, nor gaseous, but which was the state of life in the sea. A luminous state. Both in the sea and in the moving pictures.
This is a stunning portrait of a dictatorship. It is a place of betrayal – no one can trust anyone (especially not the President!) The whole country is at the whim of one mercurical person. He acts like a cat toying with a mouse. He runs a state of lies, where the weapon is false accusations – the ‘truth’ must be made to fit what is convenient for the regime. On the one side is his cruelty; on the other, sycophancy.
One of the most chilling sections is a frightening interview with the incoherent, drunken president:
‘Do you know, Miguel, that the man who discovered alcohol was looking for an elixir to produce long life?’
’No, Mr President, I didn’t know that,’ the favourite hastened to reply.
’It would be odd, certainly, for a man of such wide knowledge as you, Mr President, who has every right to consider himself as one of the foremost statesmen of modern times, but not for me.’
His Excellency dropped his lids over his eyes, to shut out the chaotic vision of his surroundings that his alcoholic state was presenting him with at the moment.
’M’m, yes, I do know a lot!’
While anyone familiar with any of the world’s too numerous dictatorships will find so much that is familiar here, mirrored in the highest literary style, it also reminded me of Trump’s White House – and I find it impossible to imagine anyone with a more towering egoism.
All in all, a chilling, masterly novel.
ASTURIAS, Miguel Angel (1889 – 1974), El Señor Presidente, Guatemala, Piedra Santa, 2000, ISBN 99922-5-024-0
In English: The President.
Book 65: Romania (German) – Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet = I would rather not have met myself today (translated as:) The Appointment (Herta MÜLLER)
I have been summoned. Thursday, ten on the dot.
I get summoned more and more often: Tuesday, ten on the dot, Saturday, ten on the dot, Wednesday or Monday. As if years were a week, it already surprises me, that after the late summer it is so soon winter.
On my big trip around almost all the countries in Eastern Europe a few years ago, one of the several in which I embarrassed booksellers by asking for something by a native that I could read for this project, one of the difficult ones was, surprisingly, Romania. No one could come up with anything in English for me. Finally in the rather charming Saxon town of Sibiu in Transylvania (I fell in love with its lidded dormer windows in the rooftops, like crocodiles peering out of a river), a German bookshop was able to come to my rescue. I thought this was an appropriate choice because a) Herta Müller wrote it in German, b) she is Romania’s only Nobel Prizewinner, c) there are actually a lot of German speakers in Romania, and d) my Romanian is rather limited. (And, e) my ancestors on the German side were also Müllers).
The original German title caused a lot of cogitation on my part, hopefully I’ve managed to twist it into equally convoluted English! The English translator avoided the issue, coming out with The Appointment, which is has the advantage of being snappy, and factually what it’s about, but loses all the unfortunate, sinister trepidation of the original. Perhaps The Summons would have been a better short title so that it didn’t sound like a mere doctor’s appointment.
The novel is set during Ceauşescu’s Communist dictatorship, during a single day, as the young woman narrator travels interminably on the tram (which is allowed to not follow a timetable, unlike her! and seems as lost as the Communist system itself) to an interrogation by the Securitate (secret police). She has a premonition that this time may be different – she’s packed a toothbrush. She originally got into trouble for the ‘crime’ of sewing ‘Marry me!’ labels onto men’s suits being exported to Italy, as a stratagem to escape from her country.
The terrifying sense of foreboding is overpowering. The ugliness of a society where everyone is watched and dissected by not only a secret police but also by one’s neighbours is really terrifying.
MÜLLER, Herta (1953 – ), Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet, Frankfurt/M., Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2011, ISBN 978-3-596-18822-2
Translated into English as The Appointment.
“A thin blue vein pulsed in the collecting pool of blood where a bullet had lodged deep in the boy’s back. Hailu was sweating under the heat from the bright operating room lights. There was pressure behind his eyes. He leaned his head to one side and a nurse’s ready hand wiped sweat from his brow. He looked back at his scalpel, the shimmering blood and torn tissues, and tried to imagine the fervor that had led this boy to believe he was stronger than Emperor Haile Selassie’s highly trained police.”
So begins this fiery tale set at the time of the overthrow of the regime of Ethiopia’s last king. The central character, the surgeon Hailu, is dragged unwillingly into it despite his best efforts to keep out, while his sons split, one of them attracted to the resistance that was to become the socialist Derg dictatorship. The descriptions of inhumanity, violence and torture perpetuated in its name are quite confronting. The characters, especially Hailu, are torn between loyalties and courses of action. At the outset he is forced to make a wrenching decision for what he hopes is the best interest of his patient, the victim of terrible torture. There are no apologies for the hated old emperor (yes, the one revered by Rastafarians), but the new dictatorship is worse. Perhaps we should have learnt by now that we can’t expect a bloody revolution to be better than what it replaces. Since we haven’t, this stunning book about what may seem old history is fully relevant today.
MENGISTE, Maaza (1974 – ), Beneath the lion’s gaze: a novel, Norton, New York/London, 2010, ISBN 978-0-393-33888-1