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Book Review

Love and Treachery in Vietnam

AGAINST THE FLOOD By Ma Van Khang; Translated from the Vietnamese by Phan Thanh Hao and Wayne Karlin; Curbstone Press $15.95 paperback, 316 pages

November 07, 2000|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Against the Flood," by Ma Van Khang, is a love story by one of Vietnam's leading novelists, but it is also a picture of how that country, so resolute in war, has grown corrupt in peace. Ma's hero, Khiem, is an army veteran, a dedicated communist, a man of integrity and a novelist as well. His heroic example shames his colleagues at a state publishing house in Hanoi, who care less for literature than for perks and promotions. They conspire to ban Khiem's latest novel on spurious ideological grounds, and they work to have him fired as director.

Wartime separations have alienated Khiem from his wife, who has been flagrantly unfaithful and now cares only about her smuggling business. Khiem himself has fallen in love with Hoan, a proofreader at his office. These two middle-aged people have barely consummated the affair, however, when a flood of opportunism and greed sweeps them apart. Hoan, too, is fired--but not before the plotters have forged her signature on a petition calling for Khiem's ouster.

Stunned by this apparent betrayal--though he later realizes she couldn't have done it--Khiem collapses. He falls under the care of his wife's latest lover, a quack herbalist whose nostrums only sicken him further. He becomes a Job-like figure, pelted by undeserved misfortune. By the time he recovers, Hoan, her face slashed by a razor by Khiem's jealous wife, has left Hanoi.

"Against the Flood," a vivid and compelling portrait of life in Vietnam today, works on at least two levels. Author Ma, who works in a publishing house and whose career parallels much of Khiem's fictional one, shows Khiem as he strives for a more nuanced view of life than wartime propaganda allowed. The descriptions of office politics are knowing and funny. Khiem can understand the reasons for his colleagues' behavior: Shameless flattery toward superiors, for instance, is one man's way of overcoming the taint of a brother who fought for the French. Khiem gives them all the benefit of the doubt, as if they were characters in his own fiction, until they destroy him.

The starkness of Khiem's downfall, however, belongs less to the contemporary realistic novel than to more mythic forms. Co-translator Wayne Karlin explains that "Against the Flood" will be read by Vietnamese as a retelling of the 19th century epic poem "The Tale of Kieu," by Nguyen Duy, whose heroine is separated from the man she loves and forced into prostitution to save her family. Her story, Karlin says, is "reflected in the travails and triumphs of Hoan's life."

Hoan, indeed, is the novel's best character, more interesting than the upright Khiem because she embodies the very complexity Khiem has sought to bring to literature. Still beautiful in her 40s, she is chaste but sensuous, sharp-tongued but kindhearted, practical but superstitious, writing romantic verses in her journal but willing to join the underworld of opium traffickers to finance revenge on Khiem's enemies.

Much suffering ensues (and Khiem's wife is conveniently killed off) before the lovers can find each other. Meanwhile, Khiem returns to his home province. He meets other upright men, such as an ex-official who lost his government job because the measures he took to avert a famine were not ideologically pure. Khiem is strengthened in his belief that the only way to live is to swim upstream, "against the flood."

He begins to write again, under a pen name that Hoan will recognize, thus ensuring their reunion. Ma includes two of his stories in the novel, as well as a wealth of poems, folk tales, proverbs and jokes that give us insight into the values that underlie the legendary Vietnamese endurance.

This novel, Karlin says, has been controversial: It's sexually frank by Vietnamese standards and sharply critical of Western-style decadence, the country's failures to uphold the communist ideal. But Ma doesn't seem to be skeptical about the ideal itself. Does he simply know where to stop his questions, or is he, like Khiem, a true believer?

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