peteg's blog

John Balaban: Remembering Heaven's Face: A Story of Rescue in Wartime Việt Nam.

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One of the perils of visiting ANU is picking through still more of the extensive collection of books on Việt Nam held in the Menzies Library. I'd read Balaban's earlier Coming Down Again and knew he could write, and indeed this was the book of his for me to read. It recounts his time as a voluntary witness in Việt Nam during the late 1960s, and his return in the early 1970s (to the Delta) and late 1980s (after đổi mới, to the Delta and Hà Nội).

Balaban bravely tells stories against himself here, as well as fulfilling his witness role by describing the effects of the American occupation of the Delta. There's a fair bit of blood and many severed limbs, and also an awareness that traditional Vietnamese culture was in danger of disappearing forever. (Perhaps Balaban's apocalypse has come to pass, I don't know.) He participated in the medical evacuation of many children organised by the Committee of Responsibility but presumably not the Operation Babylift that Dana Sachs wrote about. His time with Ông Đạo Dừa (the coconut monk) on Cồn Phụng (an island in the Mekong, in Bến Tre province) feels strangely abbreviated. The author's brass balls are often on display, which is sometimes poignant as when this crack shot of a conscentious objector takes up arms to defend a hospital at Cần Thơ. Writing this must have been tough.