Voices from Elsewhere

October 13, 2011

Nam Le, The Boat, London: Penguin, 2008

 Reviewed by Mike Heald

Nam Le was recently invited to give a speech at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, on the topic “Voices from Elsewhere”. After finding himself somewhat uninspired by various conventional ways of approaching this theme, he consulted, so he tells us in the speech, his girlfriend, who suggested he try ventriloquism! In the speech, Le develops this idea with reference to an experience he had whilst addressing an audience in Paris. He encountered amusement when he began speaking, and afterwards an Australian approached him confessing how funny it was to hear such an accent emanating from his Asian face. Le says he felt like an Asian dummy ventriloquised by an Australian voice, and though he was somewhat offended at the time, and moved to a retaliatory comment, he acknowledges the basis of this response to his cross-cultural presence.

One of the main aspects of Le’s first, multi-award-winning book of short stories, The Boat, which has impressed critics is precisely this ability to create ‘voices from elsewhere’ – narrators of vastly differing age, culture and situation – which are convincing and compelling. Le is like a shape-shifter: now a five year old Japanese girl in Hiroshima just before the bomb is dropped; now an ageing New York painter with terminal cancer; now a fourteen-year-old drug gang member in Colombia; now a Vietnamese ‘boat person’; and, in the first, electric story of the collection, a Vietnamese refugee who grew up in Melbourne, graduated as a lawyer, then left that profession to become a writer, attending the Iowa writer’s workshop…

Sound familiar? Yes, this last narrator is so close to Nam Le himself, that the boundaries between fiction and reality begin to blur. In addition to the biographical similarities, we find in the story reference to the other stories in the collection: ‘You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans – And New York painters with haemorrhoids.’ (9) Yet Le has cautioned against the assumption of autobiography.

In teaching this story to a cohort of international students in their foundation year, I have found that the situation and writing produce an acute attentiveness. On one level, the story is accessible to them, because they can relate to being visited by a parent just as an assignment is due. On another level, however, they are confronted by the strange situation where the father destroys the assignment, in this case a story which relates the father’s experience of the My Lai massacre. Searching for the possible reasons for this action leads readers to those very aspects of human nature which William Faulkner exhorted writers to return to, and which form the title of this story: “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice.”

However, if students are looking for simple resolutions to their questions in this and the other stories, they will not find them. Le has said “I started out writing poetry and reading poetry, and so I always knew that that was the side that I was most predisposed to, and so I actually had to be quite careful in these stories to not overdo that impulse, to not throw in too many images or indulge too many lyrical flights of fancy.” This wariness about images notwithstanding, “Love and Honour…” ends with an image of a slowly freezing river, as if we might see there the knowledge which the narrator tells us he gains later, knowledge which has the power to reconcile him to his father’s destruction of his work.  And in Cartegena, in which the fourteen year old Colombian assassin, Juan, ends up standing in his boss’s office, facing execution, yet with a grenade in his pocket from which he has already removed the pin, the suspense of what will now transpire intense, there comes no narrative resolution, but instead this image of an early morning in Cartegena, the child gang members’ cherished utopia:

‘As the sun rises, he says, you can see ten black lines leading into the steel gray water, each line maybe twenty metres apart, and as the water turns orange, then red, you can see that each line is made up of small black shapes and that they are moving away from the water, together, all in harmony, and then as the sun rises higher on your right you can see that each black shape is a man, there are hundreds of them, and they are hauling one enormous fishing net in from the ocean, slowly, step by step.’ (75)

Apart from the first story, there is one other with Vietnamese characters and concerns, “The Boat”. Le has said that he doesn’t yet understand his relation to Vietnam, which his family left when he was still less than one year old. Of course, Australia’s history has been peculiarly entangled with that of Vietnam, and the prospect of Le continuing to explore his heritage is an exciting one. On recent visits to Hanoi, I have been struck by the many strands of culture which coexist there: the ancient animism of traditional society, Confucianism and Chinese  influence in general, Buddhism (of both Indian and Chinese lineage), French colonial culture, nationalism, communism, militarism, and most recently a stirring entrepreneurship. If a writer with the depth and power of Nam Le can engage with this complexity, then new light may be thrown on some profound questions of human culture.

The Boat, already, contains moments of spiritual force. One example is when the boy-assassin Juan arrives to carry out the execution of his best friend Hernando. Hernando has given up his former life as a gang member, and is now working to help those trapped in that cycle of crime and violence. Juan is struck by the difference in demeanor between Hernando and all of the others on the point of death. Hernando’s face, says Juan, ‘was unlike any of the faces I had seen in their last moments – always too tight or too loose – his was settled somehow, clear of weakness, the face of a soldado ready to die – for what, I did not understand – but whatever it was, I knew then it was not mine to impede.’ ‘…not mine to impede.’: this is masterly writing which carries profound insight.

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