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A stirring family saga tells a taboo history of Vietnam

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Halfway through “The Mountains Sing,” the first novel in English by the Vietnamese poet Nguyen Phan Que Mai, a grandmother explains herself to the granddaughter she’s caring for in Hanoi in the early 1970s while American bombs rain around them.

With the rest of their clan dead, missing or away fighting, and their home reduced to rubble, the grandmother has been entrusting to the child the story of her life, rendering in harrowing detail its half-century span of resistance and survival in the face of violent dispossession, colonization, foreign invasion and civil war.

Here, at the book’s core, the grandmother, Dieu Lan, gives the reason she hasn’t before revealed that her husband and brother were murdered and her eldest son torn from her during the ruling regime’s land reform two decades earlier: “We’re forbidden to talk about events that relate to past mistakes or the wrongdoing of those in power, for they give themselves the right to rewrite history,” she tells her granddaughter, nicknamed Guava. “But you’re old enough to know that history will write itself in people’s memories, and as long as those memories live on, we can have faith that we can do better.”

This absorbing, stirring novel takes Dieu Lan’s assertion as its guiding principle, suggesting what history might look like when written from people’s memories rather than enshrined in textbooks that silence or distort the truth. For the most part, Vietnamese scholars have not veered far from official Communist Party accounts of the country’s land reform campaign of the 1950s to explore its causes, consequences or excesses. But for decades, Vietnamese fiction writers have gingerly trod this still dangerous territory, drawing on personal experience and oral histories to tell the tale from the points of view of landless peasants, women and party cadres as well as landowners. Few of their works are available in English, and Americans may not know that literature has been doing history’s job with this brutal episode in Vietnam’s past, which saw villagers denouncing neighbors as exploitative capitalists, the denunciations culminating in executions that claimed thousands of lives.

Working in this tradition, “The Mountains Sing” unfolds a narrative of 20th-century Vietnam — encompassing the land reforms of the ’50s as well as several turbulent decades before and after — through multiple generations of tenacious women in a single family. It begins in 2012, with Guava at an altar, invoking Dieu Lan and remembering her own coming-of-age during the Vietnam War and its aftermath as her grandmother’s ward. Embedded within and alternating with these reminiscences are Dieu Lan’s flashbacks, in the form of the stories about her life that she tells her granddaughter.

Que Mai contains her saga with a poet’s discipline, crafting spare and unsparing sentences, and uplifts it with a poet’s antenna for beauty in the most desolate circumstances. She evokes the landscape hauntingly, as a site of loss so profound it assumes the quality of fable. The land is where Dieu Lan loses her father, decapitated by invading Japanese soldiers along the national highway. The land is where she loses her mother during the great famine of 1945, as the pair claw their way through a jungle in search of food. They find a cornfield, only to be confronted by its owner, who shackles Dieu Lan and beats her mother to death. Enhancing the novel’s fablelike aspect, this man is known as “Wicked Ghost.”

The land is also where Dieu Lan crawls on her belly with five children following her, slithering through the yard of her elegant ancestral home to escape the neighbors who have become her persecutors during the land reform. And the countryside is where she roams, eating grass and the stems of plants, abandoning one child after another in order to save the rest. “Darkness was thinning,” she tells Guava, “the shadows of the villages that bordered the horizon looked like women whose backs were bent with the burdens of life. My mother had had to bear hers, and it was now my turn.”

It’s hard not to feel for Dieu Lan and her children, with their burdens (trauma from a battlefield rape; lost limbs; a baby born dead and deformed as a result of Agent Orange poisoning) and their alienation (their relationships strained by divided political loyalties). Just as Que Mai tells this taboo history askance, she devises oblique ways for her characters to navigate the unspeakable events that divide them: They communicate indirectly, through deathbed letters and diaries read surreptitiously. Forgiveness and reconciliation — within families, among Vietnamese and with foreign enemies — are recurring themes. Presented with a handwritten copy of “Little House in the Big Woods,” translated by a Vietnamese professor studying American literature to understand the enemy, Guava asks her grandmother, “Why should I read something from the country that bombed us?” But as she begins to read, she starts to see herself in Laura Ingalls. And in a striking coda, Dieu Lan even surrenders her enmity toward Wicked Ghost, who becomes re-entangled with the family through a winning romantic subplot.

Que Mai has said that she chose to write “The Mountains Sing” in English to gain the distance a second language provides — a distance necessary to approach a disturbing history calmly. But writing in English also allows her to present to an audience in the United States a moving portrait of its former enemy, the North Vietnamese. Through her depiction of sympathetic characters suffering under a repressive regime, Que Mai offers us in “The Mountains Sing” a novel that, in more than one sense, remedies history.

By Nguyen Phan Que Mai
342 pp. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. $26.95.

By Gaiutra Bahadur – The New York Times – March 17, 2020

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