Chinatown (New Directions, 184 pp. $16.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) by the acclaimed Vietnamese novelist Thuận (translated by Nguyen An Ly) is a compact story that encompasses worlds of time. This post-post-modern story is written in one continuous paragraph with no breaks of any kind, emphasizing that it’s a collection of words packed between two covers.
Chinatown is a breathless stream-of-consciousness story that speeds along although the narrator remains sitting in one place as we become aware of her thoughts. Thuận (Đoàn Ánh Thuận) was born in Hanoi in 1967 during the height of the American war, and lives in Paris. This is her twelfth novel and the first to be translated into English. She is a recipient of the Writers’ Union Prize, the highest award in Vietnamese literature.
The story begins with a Paris Metro train stopped at a small station sometime in the early 2000s. An abandoned duffel bag is found that could be a bomb and has brought all movement to a halt.
A middle-aged Vietnamese woman on the train begins to think back on her life. She recalls a past love, Thuy, who remains a constant memory. He was her friend during their early school years. Born in Vietnam, his “slanted eyes” and Chinese ethnicity made him an outcast in school and the village.
Although the two became close, her parents never mentioned his name during her three years of high school and five years at university in Russia. They were married for a short time and had a son. They’ve been apart for twelve years. He works as an architect in the Cholon section of Saigon, known as Chinatown.
As her thoughts bounce around, the narrator realizes how stressful her life has become in France. She teaches at a secondary school in a Paris suburb and speaks French with a jumbled accent. Aside from memories of her past love, she ponders a son and a male friend she refers to as “the guy.” But Thuy is always on her mind. While her greatest fear is that she will never see him again, she also thinks she “can’t imagine” meeting him again.
Her thoughts stray to her hairdresser and how to cook a snake. She also inserts short sections of what may become a chapter in a novel she’s writing. She occasionally recalls memories of a dreamed-of future.
There are frequent repetitions of a single thought, both within a page and from one page to another. My first look at this book, with its unbroken pages of text, led me to fear it might be difficult to read. It turns out I shouldn’t have been concerned because the lack of chapters and other page breaks led naturally to a nonstop reading experience, and the book flows as the story unfolds.
Chinatown is an interesting story told in a most interesting way.