The third issue of the Mekong Review is out. Will secular saint Aung San Suu Kyi face a lonely old age? Is Pulitzer-winning Nguyen Than Viet, author of The Sympathizer, a novel, and Nothing Ever Dies, memoirs, the true heir to Graham Greene? Does Southeast Asia needs more Silkworms? (Answer: yes).
…Vietnam was a very literary war, producing an immense library of fiction and nonfiction. Among all those volumes, you’ll find only a handful (Robert Olen Butler’s “A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain” comes to mind) with Vietnamese characters speaking in their own voices.
Hollywood has been still more Americentric. In films like “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon,” the Vietnamese (often other Asians portraying Vietnamese) are never more than walk-ons whose principal roles seem to be to die or wail in the ashes of incinerated villages.
Which brings me to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s remarkable debut novel, “The Sympathizer.” Nguyen, born in Vietnam but raised in the United States, brings a distinct perspective to the war and its aftermath. His book fills a void in the literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless while it compels the rest of us to look at the events of 40 years ago in a new light.
But this tragicomic novel reaches beyond its historical context to illuminate more universal themes: the eternal misconceptions and misunderstandings between East and West, and the moral dilemma faced by people forced to choose not between right and wrong, but right and right. The nameless protagonist-narrator, a memorable character despite his anonymity, is an Americanized Vietnamese with a divided heart and mind. Nguyen’s skill in portraying this sort of ambivalent personality compares favorably with masters like Conrad, Greene and le Carré.
Serious praise: we hear about Southeast Asia overwhelmingly from the outside; where is the fiction about the lives of Khmer-Americans deported back to the homeland they never knew, for example?
The piece on Suu Kyi is a review of Peter Popham’s recent biography, The Lady and the Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Freedom. Essential point: the people adore her but the generals don’t, and if she loses the adoration factor it’s hard to see a soft landing.
[T]he run-up to the historic election in Myanmar, last November that swept the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) to power was punctuated by long-time NLD activists complaining of being side-lined or simply dropped by their leader. More damaging to her reputation globally has been the criticism by the Western media, as well as by fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner the Dalai Lama, for supposedly turning a blind eye to the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya minority.
Then there’s her haughty and authoritarian style. She declared before the 2015 election that she would be “above” whoever takes the presidency that she craves, but is barred from by the army-written constitution because her two children are British citizens.
Political life is only going to get harder for Aung San Suu Kyi.
Indeed. And the loss of saint-hood is a given – politics is like that, just ask Tony. (Which Tony? Any Tony; Tony seems to be a very unlucky name for politicians).
Elsewhere, Khac Giang Nguyen asks what a man who is a tree portends for democratic reform in Vietnam, Liam Kelley surveys the academic landscape of Asian Studies in Australia and finds is bleak (I vaguely remember being told by my betters that Australia’s future lies in Asia, that this was the Asian Century, and that we all had to prepare for it, but that was in another country, and besides, the policy is dead), and Robert Turnbull writes about politics and patronage in Cambodia – patronage of the arts, that is. Did you know that Hun Sen likes to jot down ideas for poems in classical Khmer meters as he helicopters from one meeting to the next? Neither did I, and it’s fascinating to know; but the more important point is that without patronage of some kind, Cambodian classical performing art will become a tourist ghetto, as has happened in Bali. (Or I believe it has – perhaps the next edition of the Mekong Review will set me right).
And much more. Mekong Review is available on paper at Monument Books (which also has The Sympathizer – $15) and online as pdf.