Considering the significance of Vietnam in Australia’s post-colonial sense of itself, it is curious that it hasn’t made its way to prominence in our literary culture. There is writing by Vietnamese Australians, though it’s little known beyond their community, and Vietnam appears in the work of Australian poets who have visited or worked there. Recently we have seen Tony Briggs’s play The Sapphires, in which Aboriginal women sing their way out of racism as they perform for Australian troops, and the stage adaptation of Siobhan McHugh’s Minefields and Miniskirts. But there has been nothing of the fictional order of Christopher Koch’s The Year of Living Dangerously or Blanche d’Alpuget’s Turtle Beach, which brought Indonesia into our literary sights.
With The Grave at Thu Le (Picador, 330pp; $22) at last an Australian novel turns towards Vietnam and does so in an interestingly oblique way. It doesn’t follow the strategy of the south-east Asian novels, from Graham Greene to Koch to d’Alpuget, which use the journalist as protagonist to challenge the consequences of political intrigues and the manipulations of westerners. The Grave at Thu Le, which takes the French colonial years from 1900 to 1954 as its focus, is more interested in what Catherine Cole calls the inner landscape of nostalgia. Its glancing scenes of colonial Hanoi, refracted through memory, capture the lyricism of Vertical Ray of the Sun by the French-Vietnamese film-maker Tran Anh Hung, without letting nostalgia bleed into sentimentality. There’s a sharp intellect at work here, and a pen every bit as engaged as those of Greene or Koch.
The first word on the first page of this sophisticated novel is Hà Nôi, “the city between two flowing rivers” that was once called Than Long, “the dragon taking flight”. In 1900, or a little before, Cecile D’anyers lies on her bunk as the steamship takes her up the river from Haiphong to Hanoi, where her young husband Claude is to build the bridge over the Red River that the French will call Doumer and the Vietnamese Long Bien, and that she will not live to see. Claude buries her in the cemetery at Thu Le, in the grave of the title.
In 2000, or a little later, Catherine D’anyers, Claude’s great-great-granddaughter, flies from Paris to modern Hanoi on an impulse that is part-quest, part-first visit. It is also a kind of return to the city she has “known” since childhood, filtered through family memories and mementos: to Hanoi, the city between flowing rivers, that Claude could not bury in himself as he had buried Cecile, and that Catherine’s great aunt Lily, the only surviving child of Claude’s second marriage, still speaks of as if it were hers.
Vietnam might be a shy player in our literary culture but it is a common fictional conceit to send one generation in search of another – which makes it all the harder to do, and to do well. It is harder still when the envoy is sent into a post-colonial present with a freight of colonial memory. Catherine Cole sends Catherine D’anyers on this journey with an ease that is elegant and graceful. It is also deceptive – in the way a dancer’s appearance of ease is deceptive. The prose, with nothing forced about it, pulls us into the flow of a double-current as it moves back and forth between the perplexities of contemporary Hanoi and Catherine’s encounter with her Vietnamese cousin Hoang Duong (who has a very different story to tell) and the memory world of the D’anyers children, learning to recite Garnier’s history book, The French in Indochina, with the sounds and smells of the food vendors drifting in through the classroom windows. But as with a river, memory and consciousness are subject to cross-currents and counter-currents, to snares beneath the surface, and not everyone sees them, or if they do, they don’t see, or want to see, what they mean.
This is especially true of the banished generation of D’anyers, who in 1954 had returned to the uncertainties of metropolitan France – which was also facing the bloody end to colonial rule in Algeria – to find that seismic shifts had taken place not only around them but within them. Where once France was the absent focus of identity, now Hanoi with its memory lode of rainbow trees and children’s parties would take that role.
The family had lived in colonial Hanoi with a raft of comforting certainties – or projections, or unexamined assumptions, or self-deluding notions – that put a division between themselves and the Vietnamese, with whom they shared subtle and not so subtle intimacies, and to whom they granted a comforting existence as warm and reliable as the hands of the children’s nurse Phuong. All the while they missed the mutual transformations that were taking place around them. Even 30 years after the end of the war, which exists as a potent lacuna in this novel, there are still D’anyers who speak of Hanoi in the bright light of memory – “as though the place were just an excuse for a series of garden parties”, as Catherine puts it to her uncle Marc, accusing him of seeing too little and taking too much for granted. “No wonder it all ended so bloodily,” she says.
The emotional heart of the colonial memory Catherine has inherited from her family and brought from Paris to Hanoi might be marked by a not-yet-adult world of parties and nurses. But the political heart of the novel, sword-sharp, is Dien Bien Phu, where the Vietnamese defeated the French in 1954 in one of the 20th century’s great colonial battles.
Even for Catherine D’anyers, with her acute recognition of the war and her years of research, the seductions of nostalgia – that familiar lens with which to view the unfamiliar – remain a temptation. She finds, to her chagrin, that she’s not so different from the tourists who come in search of “the fabled city”, or the western women who come to collect their adopted babies, or the many foreigners who come with their various projects to reclaim a part of themselves. Even their photographs fail. “The buildings are too soft, too layered with history.” Time and again, Catherine falls into the trap of trying to find a particular building in a particular street, only to find the colonial image overlaid by a conical hat or internet cafe. Worse, she makes the same mistakes in the register of memory, blinkered even (or especially) in the company of her cousin Duong. In a post-colonial world, this novel seems to be saying, where the colonial mind of certainty has been displaced by a radical sense of uncertainty, nostalgia acts insidiously as both salve and lure.
When the D’anyers left Hanoi in 1954 they took the bones of their dead with them. Four graves were exhumed and shipped to France in steel coffins, which brings us back to the grave at Thu Le. The cemetery is marked on family maps that Catherine brings with her, but it seems not to exist anywhere else: not in the archives, nor in the memories of old people, nor in the village of Thu Le. Even the certainties of a cemetery prove not so certain. Were the gravestones dug up, as they sometimes were, for use in the foundations of the new city? Why would aunt Lily lie? She’s vengeful, and she’s still angry at being cast out from the solace of childhood, but why would she lie about a grave?
Catherine Cole’s first two novels were crime fictions; Nicola Sharpe, a savvy independent detective driving a rusty Peugeot 504, is on the track of corrupt politicians, developers and art dealers in Sydney’s inner west. Cole knows how to write a good mystery, though The Grave at Thu Le, begun before either Dry Dock or Skin Deep, is very much not a crime novel. Out of the painfully contested, folded-over history of colonial Vietnam comes a voice that makes no claim to a stable identity. On the contrary this post-colonial narrator is unsettled in most spheres of her life. Yet the voice of the novel – at once Catherine D’anyers and Catherine Cole and the complex play between them – speaks with an assurance, an unforced authority, that comes from having given long thought to the dance of meanings that is the inheritance of colonialism and its aftermath.
In its sure-footedness with language, The Grave at Thu Le echoes the modernism of Virginia Woolf, or more obviously Marguerite Duras, but it doesn’t have Duras’s self-absorption, or her slightly repellent self-referential eroticism. If there’s an eroticism here it is for the place, an affirmation of the visible, elusive contemporary Hanoi, with the optimism of its young population – two-thirds of whom were born after the war ended in 1975 – working its own curious blend of the global and the communist with ancient traces of the dragon taking flight. In the embodied experience of being there, Catherine D’anyers discovers the perplexities of a multi-layered city as well as a multi-layered history; Catherine Cole writes of it with an acuity that refuses to allow nostalgia to stand in for tougher truths, or globalisation to swallow history. It’s the painterly exactitude, and painterly references, she brings to a city that has eluded artists that makes me think of Virginia Woolf when she says (in The Waves): “Like and like and like. But what is the thing that lies beneath the semblance of the thing?”
The answer, if answer it is, that The Grave at Thu Le offers to this quintessentially modernist question is the post-modernist refusal of the single thing. Like and like and like. It is the multiplicity, the cross-currents and the many perplexities, that not so much lie beneath the semblance as are the semblance. Is this the voice of post-post-modernism?
At a time when there is much to be depressed by in Australia, when the understandings and tolerances that came from the long haul of our post-colonial experiments with immigration (particularly those that were a consequence of the Vietnam War) are under assault, when it’s all too easy to retreat into self-serving nostalgia, or to dismiss that strand of our history as an illusion dreamed up by complicit hopefulness, this book is quietly restorative. Australia is not mentioned, there are no Australian characters. With the historical focus located between 1900 and 1954 there is little direct reference to Australia’s war with Vietnam. Yet the intelligence behind the telling of this narrative comes, it seems to me, not from France, or from Vietnam, but from Australia’s particular experience of post-colonialism.
Catherine Cole is herself the daughter of immigrants. Her parents came to Sydney shortly before her birth in the early 1950s. She grew up with a family oriented elsewhere for their sense of themselves, and like many an immigrant’s child she’d pored over the box of photos from the powerful “there” that was not “here”. Some of these photos have slipped into the novel. Each short section is headed by a small black-and-white photograph and the chapter title in English, French and Vietnamese. I hope these will remain when The Grave at Thu Le is translated, for it’s a textual hint of the triple-cultured nature of this very Australian novel.
For her day job Cole teaches writing at Sydney’s University of Technology, where she researches and writes about Australia’s Vietnamese writers. In Vietnam she is involved in a research project that is making links with contemporary writers, and she has worked for the The Gioi publishing house on the translation of General Giap’s wartime journals. Perhaps because of this, or because of the nature of her own journey, in its way as profound as the journey of the D’anyers family, or because she has lived and worked in the Australia formed by immigration and the politics of reconciliation, she writes without the guilt that has been so debilitating to our political and intellectual culture. She doesn’t engage with debates about guilt or blame, neither fending them off nor joining the chorus of mea culpa. She brings an awareness to attitudes of mind that Australian readers will recognise, even if the French–Vietnamese history is unfamiliar. It is Cole’s probing of nostalgia as a response to the discomforts and displacements of a post-modern, post-colonial world that is the challenge of The Grave at Thu Le – and its success.
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