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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

Horror Through Eyes of Child Prisoner of War

THE SEA OF TREES by Yannick Murphy Houghton Mifflin. 227 pages, $21.95

May 22, 1997|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

A world shattered, a child on his or her own. Two remarkable novels were written on the theme over the past dozen years; in both, the world-shattering came with the irruption of the Japanese army into China.

J.G. Ballard's "Empire of the Sun," tells of an English boy in Shanghai who bicycles home on the day of the attack to find his parents gone; he spends the rest of the war in a concentration camp. In Paul West's "The Tent of Orange Mist," a finely educated Chinese girl in Nanking, her mother killed and her father in hiding, becomes the sexual booty of the Japanese officers who occupy her house.

Ballard's is the finer, perhaps, but West's is not far behind. The impact of both of these profoundly imagined and beautifully written books comes from the contrast between the barbaric smashing of childhood safety and the children's ability to find a way across the ruins. They are armed with fantasy and denial on the one hand--the safety in getting things dreamily wrong--and ingenuity and the life instinct on the other.

They seem to prevail, not just survive, in the midst of tragedy. Think of the smiles and haunted eyes in photographs of the war-abused children of our time.

Some--not all--of this is found in Yannick Murphy"s "The Sea of Trees." Tian, its adolescent narrator and protagonist, is the daughter of a Chinese father and French mother caught in Vietnam at the time of the Japanese invasion. Yeu, her father, escapes to join a Montagnard guerrilla force before being recaptured; her mother wavers in and out of emotional breakdown.

In the prison camp and afterward--Yeu goes to fight as a Nationalist general in the Chinese civil war and his wife and children try to survive in Saigon--Tian becomes the family's frail mainstay. Her ally is their amah, or nurse, a peasant woman who practices spells, clairvoyance and solid common sense. Too old and heavy for history, she hunkers beneath it; too young and light for history, Tian is a counter-eddy upon the surface of its maelstrom.

Murphy writes through the eyes of the child; when the light is too pitiless, Tian shuts them. The real terror, conveyed in an alternation of detached images and blackouts--is the decoupling of her parents from their marital and family responsibilities.

Yeu, once a strong and loving father, is an absence--whether in the hills, in solitary confinement or in China--until the end. The mother, though occasionally present, has taken refuge in a mad obsession with her husband's whereabouts; she broods less over his safety than his fidelity. Suffering turns her into a spoiled child, while the real child copes where she can and fantasizes where she can't.

By contrast with the mysteries of her father's absence and her mother's breakdown, life in prison camp is told with a surreal matter-of-factness. Tian serves as interpreter when her father and another prisoner are questioned. The Japanese, as with Ballard and West, are an unpredictable mix of appalling cruelty and erratic indulgence.

The general gives Tian's mother cigarettes and a sheet; later, in a fury, he slices off a child's ear. The soldiers are convulsed with laughter when a prisoner tells a tall story about knocking out a man's eye and dropping it in the Seine, where it drifts to sea and at present is vacationing in the Philippines. Later they gouge out his eye and impale him with a flag.

Tian quietly endures rape; her tone is vague and undramatic, as if it were just another circumstance like the rats and the occasional corpse. Over the next few years her voice grows older, less dreamlike, though still with patches of disconnection. After the war, Tian, her mother, sister and the amah end up in Saigon; later, when the Communist Vietminh begins to displace the French they immigrate to France.

The book's most extraordinary sequence tells of Tian's work--supporting her family--as interpreter to a French military interrogation team. They beat, torture and execute their Vietminh captives in a vain effort to contain the insurgents' sanguinary terrorism. With Tian they are protective and comradely; she tells of a three-day interrogation after a spectacular Vietminh killing as if she were part of a factory production team faced with a big order. Murphy actually succeeds in evoking sympathy for the interrogators, even as we are suddenly made to realize that they are a reverse image of the Japanese--also desperate, perhaps.

Murphy could not be more artful in conveying both horror and a child's displacement in the face of it. Unlike Ballard and West, though, she fails to give us the corporeal reality of the child itself. We are astonished to see it cruelly hoisted on history's high wire and managing to balance, but we lack the aching material awareness of those 60 or 70 pounds up there: that they may fall and that in some sense, despite the balancing, they do fall.

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