Lan Cao is a professor at the Dale Fowler School of Law at Chapman University and the author of the novel Monkey Bridge. Robert Olen Butler calls her “one of our finest American writers,” saying that her new book, The Lotus and the Storm (Viking, 400 pp., $27.95) is a “brilliant novel that illuminates the human condition shared by us all.”
That is what we should ask from a serious novel—and this is a serious novel. I realized that when I read the quote from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land on the page after the dedication, which begins “Who is the third who walks always beside you?”
Much of the book is set in 2006 in the United States, and deals with how life is for Vietnamese who immigrated here to start new lives after the war. This present-day narrative is set off with large sections set in Saigon in the 1960s.
The author does a superb job summoning up Cholon of the 1966-1967 era. I recognize it and feel nostalgic for the beauty of those narrow, clogged streets that seemed to go nowhere.
The two primary narrators, Minh and Mai, father and daughter, give us much to think about. When Minh says, “And the Americans entered our story not fully knowing what awaited them,” he says a mouthful.
This is typical of the understatement in this fine novel. Most Americans, in fact, didn’t even know that the French had been there, let alone they’d been defeated at Dien Bien Phu. What’s more, they would not have cared if they had been told, as evidenced by the fact that I don’t know how many times I got asked why the Vietnamese spoke French but not much English.
Mai and her older sister have a dear friend, James Baker, a young American sergeant attached to the MP Compound just down the street from where they live in Cholon. He is an enigmatic character who I never figured out, although he is as far from an Ugly American as you can get. He is golden and pure and teaches the girls American songs and English. He acts as an English tutor to Mai.
Among the most powerful sections of the book deal are those that deal with Mai and her family home coming under attack by the VC during the 1968 Tet Offensive, James dying nearby, and Mai blaming herself for not saving him, and the section in which Mai goes to the Wall in Washington with her father and makes a rubbing of James Baker’s name. Sad stuff.
The whole book is sad, even though it is filled with joyful descriptions of great meals of delicious Vietnamese food. As soon as possible I will make a pilgrimage to my favorite Vietnamese restaurant, Fortune Noodle House, and order a big bowl of pho with beef brisket. I once ate a dish of frogs legs in garlic sauce, and it brought me back to the time I had consumed such a dish in a small restaurant in Saigon.Dealing with all the tiny sharp bones reminded me of why it has been over forty years since I ordered that dish.
The ubiquitous Vietnamese restaurants in King County, Washington, demonstrate that this novel of the Vietnamese diaspora is totally valid. We as a country are much enriched by the Vietnamese presence. The question remains: Was the war worth it?
This fine novel is filled with tiny sharp bones, too—many small, painful memories that hurt and remind us of how we mishandled the war and how the Vietnamese on both sides suffered, and that there is no wall large enough to memorialize all the deaths.
Read The Lotus and the Storm if you wish to encounter—and perhaps better understand—the trauma and suffering of the Vietnamese during and after that long and bitter war. The main character, Minh, was an ARVN general, and his point of view is perfectly presented.
I’d like all American Vietnam veterans who castigate ARVN soldiers to read this book and try to eradicate their hatred of the ARVN soldiers and try to understand the position they were in, and how totally the United States had been the architects of that situation.
I highly recommend that all Vietnam veterans buy and read this fine book. Try it; you might learn something.