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)
But Priest’s blood is on my hands and under my fingernails, and his cord has been severed. I told myself that those cords would be cut by me or another. It didn’t matter who, because it was going to happen. We are mere instruments of fate, we soldiers. All those people were shot and would have been shot and we were the walking, running, screaming dead, but it matters that I killed them. The cup must be passed and the poison must be drunk, but that doesn’t mean you have to drink it. The cup was in my hands and I could have cast it back in their faces and died. That would have been better. Oh God, that would have been better. But I drank it. And I passed it and I took the communion of devils. What kind of God would listen to my prayers? Not in this field, not among the blood of devils. I have lived. I have been spared. There’s still time to escape.
We have all heard of countries terrorised and traumatised by the nightmarish, upside-down world of child soldiers, but to experience what it is like in reality – and to be one – you must read this book. Beneath the Darkening Sky covers many of the same ugly themes that we have seen (e.g. in Cambodia) and will see again in some other countries, but like them turns them into compulsive reading through the beautiful language of great literature.
South Sudan became the world’s newest country but has had little peace or good news even since then. The interminable (civil) war of this Christian/Animist south, with the oil resources, against northern, Muslim, Sudan for independence both devastated the land and prevented any development. But no sooner did it finally win freedom than the various ethnic groups started fighting among themselves.
The author was nine when rebel soldiers attacked his village and kidnapped all the children taller than an AK47 to become child soldiers. Tulba was an inch shorter; he eventually fled the country to live in Australia. But he wrote this brilliant first novel of what might have happened to him if fate had made him an inch taller.
Like the Khmer Rouge for example, the rebels claim to be creating Utopia but actually make only hell on earth. Obinna’s new life is a daily nightmare interspersed with dreaming. It is soaked in casual, self-defeating brutality. The most mercy people can expect (like his friend Priest, in the quote above) is a quick death. Obinna grows down, instead of up.
Among other horrors, the boys are used by the cowardly soldiers to walk in front of them through minefields. When one of them does step on a mine, the scene is described in movie-like slow motion (which felt like watching a crash test dummy flailing about in a car).
Like any great novel about a horrible time (similarly to In the Shadow of the Banyan, for Cambodia), the tragedy is not unrelieved. I found the fake ambush especially funny.
Traumatising as it is, I highly recommend this novel. It is narrated in short staccato sentences like machine gun fire. I can’t wait to read his second book, “When Elephants Fight”, and hope Tulba will be able to write more books.
While I was reading this, there was a documentary series on the Vietnam War on TV. I was struck by what one American Vietnam veteran said: “I only killed one person in Vietnam; the rest were objects.” This novel gives a devastating portrayal of the desensitisation of the killers, of the deadening, dehumanising objectification of death. As Obinna says: “They don’t get to choose to live and I don’t get to choose to kill”.
TULBA, Majok, Beneath the Darkening Sky, London, Oneworld, 2013 (first published by Penguin Australia, 2012), ISBN 978-1-78074-241-0