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An island in a flood of corruption

By Ma Van Khang
Curbstone Press, 306 pages, $15.95


A Jan. 14 Associated Press photograph showed a towering image of Colonel Sanders dwarfing a young man somewhere in China. The accompanying article began with the description of long lines waiting to buy fried chicken in a busy square in Beijing as symbolic of the American consumer lifestyle creeping into Asia. The article goes on:

“These changes are celebrated by U.S. policymakers who think that free market consumerism can spread democracy and stability to all corners of the globe.”

Against The Flood caused a commotion in reading circles when it was published in Vietnam in 1999 for its take-no-prisoners critique of post-American War Vietnam. Its publication in the United States in late 2000 affords Western readers an altogether different picture of Vietnam from that which we have been harboring.

The storyline spans a year in the early ’90s -- roughly a generation after the pullout of U.S. troops. It was odd to hear the conflict that raged in the ’60s into the ’70s referred to as the “American War,” and whereas this war is not the subject of the novel, it looms as a silent spectre haunting the narrative.

The story centers on two characters, Khiem, the editor-in-chief of a publishing house who has just written a masterpiece novel called The Haven, and his love interest, Hoan, a proofreader in Khiem’s office. Their mutual attraction buds and blossoms in the course of the novel. Despite the illicitness of their affair -- Khiem is married, and they are co-workers -- their love for each other is pure and strong, but the motif of betrayal that runs rampant through the novel eventually engulfs them and each narrowly escapes with his and her life.

The publishing house that employs them both can be understood as a microcosm of a country emerging from years of turmoil and bent on forging an identity, new operating principles and different ways of doing business. Khiem is an artist who feels that the creation of even one perfect short story would justify his existence as a human being. Yet, as editor of a publishing house, he sees literature disintegrating around him. Many writers are abandoning art for the more pragmatic pursuit of journalism; others settle for the banal or the mediocre. Khiem has just published his finest work, which is now in storage awaiting distribution subject to approval by the Cultural Affairs Department leadership. The politics of the place sicken him.

Hoan, though “beautiful, talented and charming,” is stuck in a dead-end job because her grandfather and father’s long-past involvement in reactionary affairs has tainted her.

As the novel opens, Hoan had invited Khiem to spend a long weekend with her at the beach where they could celebrate the festival commemorating My Chau, an ancient princess who was betrayed by her lover and who, in turn, betrayed her father by leaving a trail of goose feathers plucked from her cape for her deceitful lover to follow.

In a translator’s note at the end of the novel, Wayne Karlin observes that the story of My Chau appeals to the Vietnamese by virtue of its ambiguity, and the fact that it raises questions rather than answers them. Readers familiar with this legend as well as an epic poem, “The Tale of Kieu,” will recognize in the love story of Khiem and Hoan echoes of both.

Both Khiem and Hoan, in their attempts to reclaim the good, the true and the beautiful, swim “against the flood” of emerging postwar Vietnam. Here again, Karlin’s notes prove helpful: “Hoan and Khiem attempt to create a haven for themselves, an island in the raging flood of greed, betrayal and corruption all around them. What they want to find, finally, is a life of meaning, a life that is about more than an endless and vicious scramble for money, power and hollow recognition.” Khiem and Hoan search for the defunct idealism they perceived in the pre-war years and “lost or battered virtues of traditional Vietnam.”

The Western juggernaut is still rolling eastward. The military machine may have retreated, but the American occupation of Vietnam is more entrenched than ever. Kentucky Fried anyone?

Judith Bromberg is a regular book reviewer for NCR. Her e-mail address is jabromberg@sprintmail.com

National Catholic Reporter, April 6, 2001