Had he not deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction last year with his novel The Sympathiser, Viet Thanh Nguyen, like the characters in his new book of short stories, The Refugees, may have been overwhelmed. His voice — though recorded in the archives — would not have been as widely heard. Catapulted by the momentum of the prize, his voice, wry and eloquent, demands to be heard.
There is a solemn intensity of vision in each of the eight poignant stories in this beautiful collection. While his earlier book was meatier and more experimental, Nguyen’s latest is an amalgamation of more conventional and understated tales that nonetheless offer a wealth of inspiration and warmth. Most of the characters in these stories are Vietnamese citizens who have abandoned or been forced to leave their war-torn homeland in search of a better future in a new and strange country. As they acclimatise to their new socio-cultural surroundings, their lives move backward into memory and forward into love, loss and uncertainty.
The collection opens with ‘Black-Eyed Women’, a haunting story in which a woman, ironically a ghostwriter, is visited by the apparition of her dead brother. With the return of her brother come unspeakable reminiscences, visceral memories from the war and recollections of their trans-Pacific journey that only one of them survived. During their voyage the woman’s brother renders her androgynous by chopping off her hair and flattening her chest to prevent her from being raped and killed, and in doing so he loses his own life. In writing the story of her client in a ghostwritten memoir, she is also telling her own.
A poignant piece of work that explores the horrors of immigrant lives
It is followed by ‘The Other Man’, possibly the most moving and deeply affecting story in this collection. The protagonist, Liem, is 18 years old. A shy and sad immigrant, he arrives in San Francisco in 1975, his ears impaired by the air travel and his eyes drooping with trepidation. His eager and amicable hosts, Parrish and Marcus, soon reveal that they are lovers. This revelation sends “a nervous tremor through his gut.” Towards the end of the story as Parrish goes out of town for work, Liem is left alone with Marcus to live and experience that part of his life which he has kept secret and hidden from even himself.
In ‘War Years’, a Vietnamese family in an urban immigrant community in the United States is visited by Mrs Hoa, a Vietnamese refugee herself and a fervent anticommunist, who is collecting donations for an uprising back home. Refusing to contribute, the narrator’s mother drives Mrs Hoa away, believing that the revolt is a lost cause. With masterfulness, Nguyen intersects the lives of these two families, both of which have been afflicted by either the war or its aftermath. The deranged Mrs Hoa, he later reveals, lost her husband and two sons in the war and the donation effort is a sincere and personal act to come to terms with her loss. The narrator perfectly captures the essence of the story when he says: “While some people are haunted by the dead, others are haunted by the living.”
Ghosts from the past are a leitmotif in this collection, but what happens when all strenuous ties to one’s past are broken? In ‘I’d Love You to Want Me’ — a powerful story that explores sorrow through the ageing bodies of its characters — a professor afflicted with dementia starts addressing his wife by the name of another woman. She wonders if it’s the name of an extramarital lover, a student or a secret second wife altogether. As her husband goes on forgetting, drifting away from his past, she concocts a new life for herself, one with new names and new meanings.
Several characters in this collection battle with physical and mental ailments. Some get transplants while others succumb to sleeping pills. Their struggles, both personal and political, make them reckon with the horrors of immigrant life, a life replete with the aches and pains of displacement and dislocation. As these characters mature in an alien land they learn that new places carry no assurance of security, and the possibilities of personal turmoil and political upheavals loom perennially in the background. Nguyen, with a keen eye for detail, works the conflicts of the heart with surgeon-like precision, driving his scalpel through his characters, cutting deep into their emotions and passions.
“Then he smeared engine oil on my face and we huddled in the dark until pirates came for us. These fishermen resembled our fathers and brothers, sinewy and brown, except that they wielded machetes and machine guns. We turned over our gold, watches, earrings, wedding bands, and jade. Then they seized the teenage girls and young women, a dozen of them, shooting a father and a husband who had protested. Everyone fell silent except those being dragged away, screaming and crying. I didn’t know any of them, girls from other villages, and this made it easier for me to pray I would not be one of them as I pressed against my brother’s arm. Only when the last of the girls had been thrown onto the deck of the pirate ship, the pirates climbing back on board after them, did I breathe again.”— Excerpt from the book
Although lacking the ingenuous zeal and razor-sharp voice of The Sympathiser, this book does, however, cast a hypnotic spell, restrained but no less unsettling. Like the short-story master Jhumpa Lahiri, Nguyen’s prose is calm and melancholic, as simple and laconic as the lives of his characters are cluttered and frenzied.
I doubt there will be a timelier and more urgent book published this year. As the moral and political fabric of the US comes undone, Nguyen charts the ‘becoming’ of his characters, abject refugees with forlorn hopes and inevitable comeuppances, with a suave authority. As they confront unfathomable atrocities, it’s hard for the reader to not feel for them. We see them not as victims, but as ordinary humans. We bear witness to their lives, their stories, and we agree when a character says, “Stories are just things we fabricate, nothing more. We search for them in a world besides our own, then leave them here to be found, garments shed by ghosts.”
The reviewer is a Karachi-based freelance writer
By Viet Thanh Nguyen
Grove Press, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 21st, 2017
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