The boat in the title story of this remarkable collection is filled with Vietnamese refugees, 200 people squashed into a space meant for 15, going on two weeks at sea, racked by thirst and hunger and illness, their skin blistered by the unrelenting sun on deck, the quarters below awash in vomit and human waste. There is no medicine and little water for the ill; the dead, bundles of skin and bones, are thrown overboard into the shark-infested waters. After days on the boat, Mai, the teenage heroine of this story, realizes that she now understands why her father — who spent five years fighting the communists and two years in a re-education camp — tried to live on the surface, in the now of the moment, not looking backward or inside:
This story, like many in The Boat, catches people in moments of extremis, confronted by death or loss or terror (or all three) and forced to grapple at the most fundamental level with who they are and what they want or believe. Whether it’s the prospect of dying at sea or being shot by a drug kingpin or losing family members in a war, Nam Le’s people are individuals trapped in the crosshairs of fate, forced to choose whether they will react like deer caught in the headlights, or whether they will find a way to confront or disarm the situation.
The opening story of this volume, Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice, and its singular masterpiece, features a narrator who shares a name and certain biographical details with the author. The other tales in this book, however, circumnavigate the globe, demonstrating Le’s astonishing ability to channel the experiences of a multitude of characters.
Le not only writes with an authority and poise rare even among longtime authors, but he also demonstrates an intuitive, gut-level ability to convey the psychological conflicts people experience when they find their own hopes and ambitions slamming up against familial expectations or the brute facts of history.
Love and Honor begins as a fairly conventional account of a young writer suffering from writer’s block and trying to cope with an unwanted visit from his father, who has flown in from Australia to see him.
He recounts how, as a child, his father caned him for deviating from a “daily 10-hour study timetable for the summer holidays.” And he recounts how he learned that his father, then 14, witnessed the massacre at My Lai, surviving in a ditch, buried under the body of his mother, who was machine-gunned down with dozens of others.
After My Lai, the narrator’s father was conscripted into the South Vietnamese army and fought alongside the US army: Asked how he could fight on the side of the Americans, after what he witnessed at My Lai, he replies: “I had nothing but hate in me, but I had enough for everyone.” After the fall of Saigon, he was sent to re-education camp, tortured, indoctrinated and starved. In 1979 he organized the family’s escape to Australia.
As for the narrator, he left home at 16, fell in love with a girl and experimented with crystal meth. Eventually, he returned home, went to college and law school and became a lawyer in Melbourne — a job he hated, knowing it gave his father pride. At 25, he announced that he was quitting and going to America to become a writer.
As this story unfolds, it becomes a meditation not just on fathers and sons, but also on the burdens of history and the sense of guilt and responsibility that survivors often bequeath to their children.