“I’m going to tell you the truth,” begins the narrator on the first page of Kim Thúy’s latest, Em, “but only partially, incompletely, more or less.” To put an even finer emphasis on the point, she tells us a couple pages later, that “truth “is fragmented”—as indeed it must be when dealing with a topic as vast as the troubled history of Vietnam. Departing from its brutal colonial entrapment as a rubber producing outlet for the French, cascading through the desolation of the Vietnam War, finally culminating in the strain of exile that became the sole reality available to those who managed to survive, Em accomplishes in some 160 pages what has taken many historians volumes to tell.
Thúy achieves this awesome task by crafting a complex whole out of one-to-three page sliver-like chapters, each of which retain a shifting, cinematic focus on the movements of a handful of characters. As much as we want it to be, history is never black-and-white, but full of troubling shades and tonalities; and so it is with Alexandre, the colonialist rapist, whose rubber plantation Mai, part of a fledgling revolutionary movement, is dispatched to infiltrate as a servant and eventually kill. Instead, she winds up falling in love with him. Together, they have a child, Tâm. When war breaks out, Mai and Alexandre are both killed, and the nanny becomes her caretaker. Traditional family lineage, which most of us take for granted, is impossible to sustain in such a sphere, where the passage of time is marked by a heightened existential uncertainty—when the fact of tomorrow can hardly be taken for granted.
With the deft hand of the master craftsman, Thúy weaves the narrative in and out of linearity, allowing each piece of narrative to announce its rightful place in the puzzle. Tâm survives the massacre at My Lai, where she and her nanny fled after the assassination of her mother and father. Suddenly, the narrative shifts to a scene of Saigon street life—particularly the less-privileged side thereof: the lives of beggars, the abandoned, the rudderless—the human detritus of war. We meet a homeless orphan, Louis, who manages to survive on his wits alone, eventually making it out by helicopter during Operation Frequent Wind; while Tâm accomplishes her escape via one of the evacuation ships; and yet another character is hoisted on to one of the Operation Babylift planes. To those who might object that this sounds a bit too illustrative of historical circumstance, it is to Thúy’s profound gifts as a novelist that she evades this trap by fracturing her narrative midway through the book – as an ironic reflection of the very real fracturings that took place at the war’s end – into a confused morass of stories that gradually and fascinatingly resolve themselves in the book’s final pages.
The prose here is some combination of journalistic conveyance and the condensed mode of storytelling often referred to as “flash fiction”; at times, Thúy will interrupt the flow of her chapters with brief essayistic interludes, offering commentary on everything from the word “coolie” (offering a provocative argument that what Vietnam experienced was a “reverse coolie-ism”) to nationalist perspectives on the twentieth century’s longest-running tragedy:
The Americans speak of the “Vietnam War,” the Vietnamese of the “American War.” This distinction is perhaps what explains the cause of that war.
The voice that drives this narrative—at times plaintive, at others ironic—is, if anything, utterly devoid of the sentimentality of declamation, preferring instead the hard, gritty textures of truth that flowery pretension always attempts to obscure. Formally, Thúy’s work seems ready to be placed next to that of the great North American minimalist writers like Mary Robison and Diane Williams, who similarly manage to pull off an entire range of pathos within the span of a paragraph or two; though it is ultimately Marguerite Duras, who similarly uses the French language as a tool for reconciliation (and, perhaps uncoincidentally, spent her youth in colonial Indochina), who accomplishes a peculiar poetry of unadornment and longing similar to that of Thúy.
What Thúy, whose elegantly economical French is rendered here into a refined and lucid English by renowned Quebecois translator Sheila Fischman, manages to produce is an engrossing narrative that holds its own idiosyncratic style—something that should, after all, be the task of every novel to accomplish, but is seen increasingly rarely.