In May, New Directions will be publishing Linda Le’s novel THE THREE FATES. To prepare the way I am publishing a review I wrote for the Washington Post in 1997 when her novel SLANDER was published. I hope it is obvious why I am eagerly awaiting this new novel and why I hope you will read SLANDER between now and then…
The Vietnam War, no matter what we might think about it, is now just another historical fact. Vietnam is once again an obscure country that rarely appears in the news and is present now mostly in the form of Vietnamese restaurants in larger American cities. Our ignorance of this country and its people is nearly perfect in spite of (or because of) our entanglement with it.
So it is startling, revealing, humiliating and pleasant to read the first of Vietnamese-born Linda Le’s six novels to be translated into English. Le, who immigrated to France at the age of 14 and writes in French, produced these six novels before the age of 30 and now dismisses her first here as just the sort of books anyone could produce at that age.
SLANDER, her fifth novel, entwines and merges two distinct and contrasting voices: that of an old man, just released after a long incarceration in a mental hospital and now working in a library; and that of a young woman, his niece, who is trying to make sense of their world. It is a world of exile, an exile that is both physical—they have each been living in France for the last 15 years--- and linguistic: Each now thinks in French, and she writes in French further distancing themselves from that country called Vietnam.
It must be happily said that nothing “happens" in SLANDER. The niece does discover that the father she grew up with is not her biological father. But there is none of that muck of dreary realistic incident and story that clogs so much recent American fiction. Instead we are given the pleasure and texture of voice. Here the uncle hints at the complexities of Vietnamese history and of the recent past as personified by the niece’s real father, a Westerner who came to Vietnam with the war and had an affair with her mother: “Her mother says, a man full of pride and courage. (The man of courage braved ambushes, defied snipers, visited the front lines but he beat a hasty retreat as soon as he was threatened by fatherhood.) He said, I cannot know if this child is mine or your husband’s--- my enemy’s. The man of courage dropped out of the game. Before leaving the Country, he chose an international name for the unborn child. Later, he grew brave enough to send her a pink layette.”
Linda Le aspires to be a writer, neither a Vietnamese writer nor a French writer but simply a writer, so it is ironic to see her ghettoized in Nebraska’s “European Women Writers” series. But that is easily overlooked in light of the book itself, which is wonderfully designed object. And of course no conventional publisher would have the courage to do such a hard lucid book, which contains this voice: “You forget that love is nothing but sweat, secretions, rancor. A simple matter of perspiration that begins in a nervous moment called coup de foudre, continues between sour-smelling sheets, and in the long run can only conclude in the proximity of two bad moods by day and two bad smells by night, until the final bankruptcy, the last lather, which is worked up by the fear of longer having anyone to sweat with.
However, SLANDER is no novel of mere exotic heartbreak like Marguerite Duras’s THE LOVER. Rather it is a novel about the how to search for a father. It asks the unanswerable real question: Why was I born? Le knows that, “she will have to choose between these two specimens of father. Between the best- selling novelist’s book, a book that puts on a showy display of erudition and seduction, a book written with facility, a book that enchants the reader, a book padded out with frivolous phrases and ending with a pirouette— she has to choose between that charming book and the other specimen, an austere book that encloses nothing but a little dried blood.”
Probably only in heaven will this book be a best-seller. But SLANDER takes up residence in the emotions of the reader and creates a literary country one wants to visit and revisit. As Le’s protagonist says, “I look in books for a sign of recognition. I leaf through a lot of them. Most of the time I see nothing other than a book, some paragraphs, some words. I get tired of turning the pages. I‘m ready to stop. Then the miracle happens. I pick up a book. I open it and something there makes a sign to me. In those moments I feel like a shipwrecked man who sees a hand on the horizon, a hand waving on the surface of the water, a living hand. A hand that can do nothing for me. But still a hand that signals to tell that at least there are two of shipwrecked here on this sea of solitude.
Today, if you know the Washington Post you realize they no longer have an interest in books.
While they still publish reviews by Michael Dirda--- and he is very good--- he is published more out of nostalgia for the Pulitzer Prize he earned a long time ago for them than as part of any genuine interest in the word. The newspaper now reflects only the boredom of chronicling the political ruling class.