Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Unwarranted Generalizations about Việt Nam - One

What are my thoughts on war writing? I generally like it, even when it concerns this country in the 1963-1975 period. But I also feel that the less metaphors a book uses, the better it is to read. That's probably why I like Chickenhawk a lot - it's excellently written, it's exciting, and the author, one Robert Mason, is clear on the point that much of the disorientating images and sounds he suffers is PTSD, plus a little bit of guilt. He doesn't mythologize these symptoms or this country; he just knows he is a little off in the head. It also appears that he genuinely likes the inhabitants he meets here - the ones that aren't shooting at him. 

By contrast, the Vietnamese people are just used as a backdrop in Michael Herr's Dispatches. There's some nice descriptive writing there, but there's also too much of the "Việt Nam as metaphor for the sixties"... wordsmithing I find quite suspicious after living here. This metaphor may make sense for the author. Not for the locals: they just live here. But then Herr Herr never seemed too interested in the hearts and minds of the indigenous inhabitants. As he admits in the book, he flies out of the country in an opium haze, never to look back. A few pages later, set some years after 1975, he remarks on "a picture of a North Vietnamese soldier sitting in the same spot on the Danang river where the press centre had been... He looked so unbelievably peaceful." Well, that could be inner peace... or it could be the poor soul saving his energy during famine conditions. And conservation is a must, if this soldier was probably about to be sent to fight the Khmer Rouge. The late seventies in this country were hard. But Herr decides not to dwell on these unpleasant facts. They would be complicating the "Việt Nam = '60s" metaphor, making it a little harder to sell to publishers. Or maybe I'm getting cynical about the author's motivations.

When I return Stateside - Queensland, to be exact - I wouldn't mind checking out The Things They Carried. It's another book about the American War, as the Vietnamese describe what everybody else thinks as the "War in Việt Nam". I haven't read it, so I can't say whether I'd like it or not. I feel I would. But I admit, I rolled my eyes at this snippet. Never mind that it is set in 196x rather than 200x, or quotes a minor character (someone's girlfriend who decides to come over here and then accompany her fella on Green Beret patrols). It grates.

Rat continues: Mark waits outside the Green Beret's camp. Rat cautions him against bothering the Green Berets. Then they hear Mary Anne singing in what sounds like a foreign language. Mark can't wait anymore. He runs into the tent, and then everything is silent. Rat and another soldier follow him in. The tent is full of candles and has a strange tribal quality. But the most powerful thing is the smell: a mixture of incense and death. The head of a leopard sits on a post in the corner. There are bones everywhere. Mary Anne appears. Her eyes are dull, and though she wears the shorts and sweater she arrived from America in, she also wears a necklace of human tongues. She tells Mark that he doesn't understand what Vietnam really is. She says, "When I'm out there at night, I feel close to my own body, I can feel my blood moving, my skin and my fingernails, everything, it's like I'm full of electricity and I'm glowing in the dark--I'm on fire almost--I'm burning away to nothing--but it doesn't matter because I know exactly where I am." 

At this point... and that's me imagining myself as another minor character in the novel... I see myself shaking her. Well, I'd disarm her first, and then shake her, and say "You don't understand what Việt Nam is either, lady!" Then I'd probably handcuff her, and force her to accompany me (on a motorbike, naturally) to the nearest dingy Phở eatery, and point around and say, simply, "This is Việt Nam". Then I'd give her a bowl of soup. I'd probably unhandcuff one of her arms at this point - if she's so in tune with this land as she says, then she can consume the stuff with one set of chopsticks. Oh, and I'd better remove her necklace of human tongues before setting off. We don't want to frighten other customers. Then it's off to Tân Sơn Nhựt airport (which is what they called Tân Sơn Nhất back then), and get her on the first plane home. This country can take a lot of stress, but it could not and should not afford her terrible "understandings".

In related news, Charlie is not in the jungle, getting stronger. Charlie's staying up late at home to watch the Cup. Charlie's also engaging in mild absenteeism. Charlie had to sleep in late this morning after watching Germany get beaten to smithereens by Italy. The diving bastards.