Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

A lost world

The Eaves of Heaven A Life in Three Wars Andrew X. Pham Harmony Books: 302 pp., $24.95

June 15, 2008|Richard Eder | Richard Eder, a former Times book critic, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987.

ONLY ITS loss defines a golden age. Andrew X. Pham's story of Pham Van Thong, his father, is ostensibly one of devastation. A young Vietnamese loses his ancestral home in the north, flees with his family, first to Hanoi and later to Saigon, endures bloody fighting as an unwilling conscript in the South Vietnamese army, flees once more when the Communists prevail, is arrested and undergoes a year of harsh re-education digging irrigation ditches before being released. Yet "The Eaves of Heaven" is a work of radiance. In some ways, it resembles that supreme recollection of a world lost to history's depredations, "Speak, Memory," in which Vladimir Nabokov summoned up his pre-revolutionary Russian boyhood.

Pham writes in an introductory note that "Eaves" is not a memoir, yet it fits his definition of one: "our love letters and our letters of apology, both." But it takes a highly unusual form: The "our" refers to something more than a collaboration of father and son; it is a fusing of "as told to Andrew" and "as told by Andrew." "I have lent his life stories my words," Pham writes. "The perspectives and sentiments within are his." The "I" throughout is the father's. And since a memoir is the past distilled through voice and sensibility, this is a double distillation: letters of love and apology squared.

Thong's family was landed aristocracy that went back five generations in the Red River Delta. His uncle Pham Van Thuan, head of the clan, was the local magistrate, owner of one of two cars in the province and one of two clocks in the village. "Neither was used to tell the hour. For that, there were the crows of the cock, the height of the sun, and the length of one's shadow." Long ago and far away, yet it was 1940 -- for Thuan, a time of presages: "A crow . . . had alighted in his courtyard and stared into his audience hall." Weeks later, "World War II would reach the Red River Delta on the heels of the Japanese army and mark the downfall of our clan."

The heavenly eaves of the title, according to Thong's mother, alternate good fortune with bad. Thong (through his son) brings out pain and sometimes horror as he describes the family's struggles during the Japanese occupation, the return of the French, the rise of the communist Viet Minh, the flight south and his own ordeals thereafter. But as with Tolstoy's war and peace, darkness, intrinsically formless, gets shape and vividness from the light playing through it. It flickers from the chapters that recount Thong's idyllic childhood memories and the crows that alit among them: inexplicably then, in retrospect all too evidently. Thuan's crow fulfilled its mission: As an official, however just, and the province's second largest landowner, however benevolent, he was an early target of the Viet Minh. Riding to court, "the last magistrate" was shot dead.

Then there was Vi. During the Japanese occupation, the Phams, still prosperous and feeding hundreds of starving villagers, found a dying boy. They nursed him to health; then, as a teenager, he ran off to join the Viet Minh forces fighting the French. In 1948, Vi reappeared, now a clandestine operative sent to arrange delivery of food to the Viet Minh fighters, telling the fascinated children of heroic battles against the French. But he had another role: leading an assassination unit against those suspected of helping the rival Nationalists. One of its victims was Uncle Uc, a beloved teacher, who was seized, interrogated and coldly executed. (The description, brilliantly chilling, is one of several passages in which Thong's recollection gives way to Andrew's fictional reconstruction.) The year before, it was the French whose horror overran the village. A unit led by Mohammed, a sadistic Algerian, arrived to hunt out Viet Minh sympathizers. Discovering a peasant in a haystack, Mohammed pronounced him guilty for hiding, threw him a machete, ordered him to fight and cut him to pieces with his saber.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|