On New Year’s Eve, 1954, Uncle Chinh informed his wife of his decision to join the people’s army. She should be pleased to join the Revolution. He wanted his son and daughter to be brought up fighting for their country. He was their father and nothing stopped him from taking them with him - there was no escape for them.
The day of their departure, in a desperate gesture, Tuân had cried out in French, “You’re a monster! Let me at least say good bye to my cousin”. His uncle had held him in his icy stare and replied in Vietnamese, “Mày là thằng việt gian” (“You are but a traitor of your country”) adding, “Because of what you have said, I will give her to a man who has not been poisoned by the West, even if he is illiterate”.
If his choice of the coloniser’s language made Tuân a “traitor”, it also pointed to his destiny. His love of French and of Gérard de Nerval’s poetry would be his refuge in the midst of the atrocities that he would endure in a bloody Viet Nam, torn apart by war and partition.
This novel is an enchanting exploration through the green paradises of childhood love and a painful present, evoking the subtlest fragrances of the East and composing a staggering ode to the life force of words.