Book review: ‘The Three Fates: A Novel’ by Linda Le

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The Three Fates

A Novel

Linda Lê

Translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti

New Directions: 172 pp., $15.95 paper

Linda Lê is an extraordinary writer of scintillating French prose. Born in South Vietnam in 1963, she came to Paris as an adolescent and is now Vietnamese in the same way that Nabokov was Russian, writing in her adopted language with a kind of desolate grace. Still largely unknown in America, she has published a dozen books in France, including the 1997 novel “The Three Fates,” which has just come out in the U.S. in a translation precisely rendered by Mark Polizzotti.

“The Three Fates” is one of the most moving novels I have ever read. A small, quiet effort such as this is always endangered by the noise of the more pressing and transitory, but much like “Slander” — the only one of her books to have previously been translated into English — it will endure as a timeless work.

The three Fates of the novel’s title are two sisters and a cousin awaiting the arrival of the sisters’ aged father, nicknamed King Lear, who has been summoned to France from Vietnam many years after the rest of the family fled the country. The book does not avoid the complexity of the cousins, their relationships with one another or with this arriving patriarch.

Because of Lê’s background and that of her characters, American readers cannot help but experience this book against the still-unresolved legacy of the Vietnam War. We are dropped, you might say, into a landscape of remoteness, which mirrors both that of the author (“Written in a state of extreme isolation,” Lê acknowledges in a moving after-note) and of the cousins as well.

The oldest is married to a wealthy manufacturer and follower of the Dalai Lama; she wishes to show King Lear that she was “heading straight down the path to supreme happiness, carrying on her back a spanking new house, in her belly a little prince, and under her arm an enlightened scoutmaster.”

The youngest, Lear’s favorite, works as a lowly telemarketer. “Such long legs,” Lê writes, “made for prancing at the summit and condemned, while waiting for the magic cavalcade to sound, to sliding into her cubicle where they were seen only by the libidinous eyes of the little telemarketers fallen on hard times and not about to clamber back up.”

But mostly we are within the words of the middle Fate, Southpaw or Stump (since she is missing a hand), who is one of the most memorable characters in this fictional yet real world. “I trusted the itch in my stump,” she tells us, “which had started up the minute my cousins mentioned granting the forgotten old man his one last joy. My stump can always foretell disaster.”

It is Stump who knows that “New Generations flourish on tombs,” and she can clearly see King Lear back in Vietnam. “From his ruined palace,” she imagines, “he had witnessed the exodus of the runaways, the year when Saigon had changed hands. And now he saw the return of the saprophytes and King Lear snickered by his window. The ruined palace in the midst of the clean white villas retreated increasingly into itself, like an aged eunuch in a bedful of virgins.”

Just as James Joyce used “The Odyssey” as a kind of loose frame for “Ulysses,” so too does Lê appropriate Shakespeare’s “King Lear” for her own purposes. The result is a transcendent piece of world literature, comprising in equal parts homage, allusion and resonance and always engaged in its own history.

McGonigle is the author of “The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov” and “Going to Patchogue.”