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Book Review

Lyric Imagery Pervades Memoir-Like Saga of Laotian Diaspora

LAND OF SMILES A Novel by T.C. Huo; Plume $12.95, 224 pages, paper

September 28, 2000|TONY COHAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

We live in the age of the refugee. Unprecedented masses of people, uprooted by war, deprivation, natural disaster and political upheaval, leave their homes to board buses and boats, trains and planes, headed for unknown lands, unimaginable lives, unspoken tongues. Each displacement bears its story of tragedy and hope. Occasionally, by quirk of circumstance or plain literary luck, the immigrant himself (a Nabokov) comes to write his tale in the adopted tongue. More often, we must wait a generation or more for a Maxine Hong Kingston or a Lisa See to summon her forebears' epic journey to Gold Mountain.

Laotian-American author T.C. Huo's second novel, "Land of Smiles," tells the story of a 14-year-old boy, Boonkatorn, who escapes Communist Laos in the late dark days of the Vietnam conflict by swimming across the Mekong. A lonely, perilous odyssey through refugee camps on the Thai side leads him finally to one camp where he is reunited with his father and grandmother. There he learns that his sister and mother have perished in their attempted river crossing: A boatman had stolen their jewelry and tossed them overboard. Amid the desultory, dead-end life of the camp, the grief-stricken, precocious boy mines his linguistic gifts, studying English. As the changing world order plays itself out in microcosm among the huddled refugees along the Mekong, we meet Madame Francoise, a Laotian lady who teaches French; a coven of scheming matchmakers trying to marry off his father; soldiers, lepers and gravediggers. In this purgatorial holding pen, the refugees' lone hope is to be granted asylum somewhere in the West. Finally Boonkatorn and his father are granted an interview with the falang (white) inspector, upon whom all their hopes of immigration to America depend. Accepted, father and son board a plane full of other souls in transit for Seattle by way of Bangkok, Hong Kong, Tokyo.

Heartbreaking, keenly observed, "Land of Smiles" rises at moments to a strange lyric intensity, a sort of Southeast Asian magical realism. Certain haunting leitmotifs--imaginings of his dead mother floating down the Mekong, the song of a man singing across the river to his lost Laotian lover--knit together the life he lost with the one he is entering. We sense we are inside a mind that is not European, and not trying to be, and this is one of the book's strengths.

If many recent memoirs veer toward the novel in their liberties with invention, Huo's novel hews so tightly to Boonkatorn's thoughts and experiences--as if the narrator himself were that boy--that "Land of Smiles" feels more like a memoir: The author's story, recast in certain respects perhaps, reads as an act of memory, reconstructed. In the novel's second part, Boonkatorn encounters a bewildering America of Bee Gees, "Saturday Night Fever," Superman and empty abundance. His Americanized relatives encourage him to adopt an American first name, while he and his fellow immigrant students find respite from the pressure of having to speak English in wordless bouts of roller-skating. When his father, a struggling carpenter defeated by the new land and language, remarries in Golden Gate Park to a woman he'd met back in the camps, the bitter Boonkatorn recalls his drowned mother: scenes of the wedding mix with images of his lost Laotian childhood.

"Land of Smiles," seen as a novel, has some limitations. Its literalistic, near-documentary rendering of experience seems better suited to the memoir form. But as an original telling of the Asian immigrant experience by a talented survivor, it is a decided success: a remarkable story, a courageous performance, and we're privileged to get it.

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