A Life in Three Wars
Andrew X. Pham
Harmony Books: 302 pp., $24.95
Only its loss defines a golden age. Andrew X. Pham's story of Pham Van Thong, his father, is ostensibly one of devastation. A young Vietnamese loses his ancestral home in the north, flees with his family, first to Hanoi and later to Saigon, endures bloody fighting as an unwilling conscript in the South Vietnamese army, flees once more when the Communists prevail, is arrested and undergoes a year of harsh re-education digging irrigation ditches before being released. Yet "The Eaves of Heaven" is a work of radiance. In some ways, it resembles that supreme recollection of a world lost to history's depredations, "Speak, Memory," in which Vladimir Nabokov summoned up his pre-revolutionary Russian boyhood.
Pham writes in an introductory note that "Eaves" is not a memoir, yet it fits his definition of one: "our love letters and our letters of apology, both." But it takes a highly unusual form: The "our" refers to something more than a collaboration of father and son; it is a fusing of "as told to Andrew" and "as told by Andrew." "I have lent his life stories my words," Pham writes. "The perspectives and sentiments within are his." The "I" throughout is the father's. And since a memoir is the past distilled through voice and sensibility, this is a double distillation: letters of love and apology squared.
Thong's family was landed aristocracy that went back five generations in the Red River Delta. His uncle Pham Van Thuan, head of the clan, was the local magistrate, owner of one of two cars in the province and one of two clocks in the village. "Neither was used to tell the hour. For that, there were the crows of the cock, the height of the sun, and the length of one's shadow." Long ago and far away, yet it was 1940 -- for Thuan, a time of presages: "A crow . . . had alighted in his courtyard and stared into his audience hall." Weeks later, "World War II would reach the Red River Delta on the heels of the Japanese army and mark the downfall of our clan."
The heavenly eaves of the title, according to Thong's mother, alternate good fortune with bad. Thong (through his son) brings out pain and sometimes horror as he describes the family's struggles during the Japanese occupation, the return of the French, the rise of the communist Viet Minh, the flight south and his own ordeals thereafter. But as with Tolstoy's war and peace, darkness, intrinsically formless, gets shape and vividness from the light playing through it. It flickers from the chapters that recount Thong's idyllic childhood memories and the crows that alit among them: inexplicably then, in retrospect all too evidently. Thuan's crow fulfilled its mission: As an official, however just, and the province's second largest landowner, however benevolent, he was an early target of the Viet Minh. Riding to court, "the last magistrate" was shot dead.
Then there was Vi. During the Japanese occupation, the Phams, still prosperous and feeding hundreds of starving villagers, found a dying boy. They nursed him to health; then, as a teenager, he ran off to join the Viet Minh forces fighting the French. In 1948, Vi reappeared, now a clandestine operative sent to arrange delivery of food to the Viet Minh fighters, telling the fascinated children of heroic battles against the French. But he had another role: leading an assassination unit against those suspected of helping the rival Nationalists. One of its victims was Uncle Uc, a beloved teacher, who was seized, interrogated and coldly executed. (The description, brilliantly chilling, is one of several passages in which Thong's recollection gives way to Andrew's fictional reconstruction.) The year before, it was the French whose horror overran the village. A unit led by Mohammed, a sadistic Algerian, arrived to hunt out Viet Minh sympathizers. Discovering a peasant in a haystack, Mohammed pronounced him guilty for hiding, threw him a machete, ordered him to fight and cut him to pieces with his saber.
These were hard things; so was much else in those years. In 1948, Thong and his father (his mother was by now dead) and other clan members left the countryside for Hanoi, where the French were still in control. There they prospered, but when the French pulled out and the Viet Minh took over, they fled to Saigon. Much of the memoir deals with Thong's life in South Vietnam. He becomes a teacher, marries (Anh, his wife, portrayed with delicate beauty, remains courageous and devoted through the hardships that follow), resists equally overtures from the Viet Cong and opportunities to prosper in his role as a South Vietnamese government official. The account of his service in an auxiliary army unit is harrowing, both in the corruption he finds and in the account of a Viet Cong ambush that decimates his unit. There is the chaos of efforts to flee Saigon in 1975, as the city is about to fall, the hardships he endures as a prisoner of the Viet Cong and his freeing after a year or so. The book ends before Thong and his family manage to settle in the United States.
The adult years in the south are vividly told. But the heart of "Eaves," the special light that expands it, comes from childhood. We get feasts, games, fireworks, and the shadows approaching only make them more precious. Thong tells of a day hunting grasshoppers with Hoi, his best friend. Later, Hoi will become a high Viet Minh official; now it is the interminable parting dawdle of two boys as evening comes on.
It is more than a day ending. *
Richard Eder, a former Los Angeles Times book critic, won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987.