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 years were passing. Sometimes I remembered how my re-encounter with La Paz had been, when, at the end of the eighties, I came to study history at San Andrés. I was struck by the colour of the heights, between ochre and reddish, a limestone conformation that hinted that we were in a place little given to the somnolent manifestations of routine, and the snowy majesty of Illimani dominating the city from the distance…
Sometimes this project, at least the reading in the original language, seems like a struggle between encouragement and discouragement. Yet again, after the disillusionment with my Spanish when struggling to read Tres Tristes Tigres (for Cuba), comes an easy and enjoyable novel from Bolivia which restores my faith in my language ability. The same happened not long ago when Guinea followed Chad in French. It makes me hope that maybe it’s not me, it’s the books.
Oscar is obsessed with the presidential palace. As a boy he frequented the Palacio Quemado (the Burnt Palace), a labyrinthine, disorienting building, the symbol of the country’s lost governments, which received its strange name from being almost totally destroyed in an 1875 revolt. His brother Felipe had died there, giving him another level of mystery to penetrate.
His father worked in the Palacio Quemado as dictator Banzer’s Information Minister, and he himself ends up in the press office concocting inspiring speeches that he doesn’t believe in for the president. It is a moot point what he does believe in, if anything. For him the speeches are virtually only works of art, not something that represents life and death to the people. Nevertheless he seems to think that if only his speeches were true, Bolivia would be saved. The compassionate speech that he writes for the president doesn’t match Canedo’s body language, its failure is all down to him. Oscar turns out to be out of sync with both Canedo (who is a lame duck less than a year into his presidency) on the one hand and the people on the other (who are in a tax revolt).
His relation with Natalia, who also works in the government, is ambiguous, like the one he has with the government itself. She tries to open his eyes to how corrupt political life really is. When he goes into a slum the people there intimidate him for his supposed support of the government. Oscar’s own sister is on the opposite side of politics.
Palacio Quemado is a great look inside the unfortunate side of Bolivian politics, and highly recommended. Unfortunately I don’t think it has been translated into English.
PAZ SOLDAN, Edmundo (1967 – ), Edmundo, Palacio Quemado, Miami, Alfaguara, 2006, ISBN 978-1-59820-546-3
Before midnight, the old man’s leaf fell gently from the tree on the moon. It was a most gentle death. Hush. And the soft falling of the withered leaf didn’t even tease the well of Karin’s emotions, nor did it puncture the lacrymatory pockets. She didn’t cry, didn’t announce the departure of the old man’s soul to anyone until the following morning. She stayed by him, keeping his death all to herself. She lay by him in reverent silence, he dead, she alive – but you couldn’t have told the difference, so quiet was she beside him.
This is the first novel in the Blood in the Sun trilogy.
It is basically an in-depth study of the evolving relationship between the Somali orphan Askar and Misra, an ethnic Ethiopian lady who comes to look after him. It takes place at the time of the largely forgotten Ogaden war (1977-8) between Somalia and Ethiopia. The Ogaden Desert is inhabited by Somalis but was (and is, after the Ethiopians reconquered it with the help of their then sponsor the USSR and its allies), occupied by Ethiopia. In what looks like a continuing theme for the world’s twilight nations, or regions, “it is easier ridding yourself of a colonialist from beyond the seas than it is to oust an African one.” (for ‘African’, insert ‘Asian’ or any of the other possibilities). However, I’m not convinced that Namibia should have been listed as an exception – by the time of the setting, the German colonialists were long gone, but the future Namibia was finding it very difficult to escape from its neighbour South Africa.
As is usual in war, Misra is accused of treason. Meanwhile, Askar’s relationship with her becomes both intimate and testy. He feels that he is faced with the impossible choice of having to betray either her or Somalia. Farah explores the psychology of this complicated link.
It took a long time for the significance of the title to be revealed, but maps become a symbol of the way that ‘truth’ is not one and unchangeable, just as the country’s borders are not immutable. It is not as easy to pin down as it should be. Going back to the map, the one hanging on your wall probably has something called ‘Somalia’ (and something called ‘Ethiopia’) separated by nice confident red lines. But one country blends into another, both in space (geographically and culturally) and time (historically). Since we started drawing neat lines across the landscape, it has never been the case that everyone belonging to a certain people will always find themselves on the ‘right’ side of the border. And as for Somalia itself – all nicely coloured yellow on my map – it currently doesn’t exist as a single entity. Somaliland (the part colonised by the British rather than the Italians) is de facto independent, as is Puntland, while violence-torn Somalia proper is in fact the most tenuous part of the land.
At the time I read it I was in the mood for something with a faster and more intricate plot. But it is a very good and thought-provoking novel.
FARRAH, Nuruddin (Nuuradiin Faarax) (1945 – ), Maps, New York, Arcade, 2016, ISBN 978-1-62872-585-8