peteg's blog

Andrew X. Pham: The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars

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I finally bought this from the UK version of Abebooks. The pound is worth so little these days that it is cheaper to buy that way than directly from America. As always, the postage was twice the price of the book, ultimately costing me something like $AU14.

Here Pham tells the story of his father Thong; unlike his earlier Catfish and Mandala, he deals himself a very minor role, and makes not much of their relationship. The three wars are the occupation by the Japanese during World War II, the first Indochina War, against the returning French colonials, and the American War. The book dovetails with Pham's earlier stories, ending with his father free of the re-education camp, of the catfish, so to speak. The climax is (rightly) the family's move south in 1954, paired with Thong's release.

It is as well-constructed as his earlier work, with the same paired-stories structure and relentless pacing, occasionally scintillating prose and more often than not manages to perfectly capture the settings. I reckon the best parts deal with the end of the mandarin era, the squeeze the land-owning gentry were in between the Việt Minh and the French; roughly, there was no way for the nationalist but not communist people to get on board, with the gentry forced to placate both sides when the guerilla insurgency got going. Pham's ancestors were the patricians of the Tong Xuyên Domain, a place beyond Google's ken, apparently somewhere between the coast and the capital.

Hà Nội is not rendered so well, and little is said about the other classes, apart from some prostitutes from the villages; Lockhart's translated tales The Light of the Capital do a better job there. I was fascinated by his account of Sài Gòn in the days before and after its fall/liberation as it is the sort of thing I could read entire books about. The scenes from the American War are well-handled and the corruption made manifest, though the potted history might be a bit dodge; who cares about the facts though, this is about the people.

The book provides no real insight into the motivations of the new regime, focussing on the seemingly senseless acts of revenge that are (of course) what sticks in the memory. The absolutism of the Việt Minh may have been necessary for them to secure power, and possibly also for them to win the war, but its lack of flexibility, its inability to encompass those stuck in the middle after WWII or those disenfranchised after 1975 was a real liability; fittingly Pham closes with the image of brother pitted against brother, the cleaving of the family, the most un-Vietnamese thing ever.

Incidentally the somewhat progressive Communist cadres, such as Võ Văn Kiệt, do get some recognition in this book, albeit accompanied by the stench of nepotism. Near as I can tell the only road named after this bloke is in Quảng Ngãi, and seems to go nowhere.