June 2008

Arts & Letters

‘The Boat’ by Nam Le

By Martin Shaw

In Fatih Akin's recent film, The Edge of Heaven, two characters meet for the first time in a restaurant. "How did you recognise me?" one asks. "You were the saddest-looking person in the room," the other replies. The scene could be straight from one of the short stories in this outstanding debut collection by Nam Le. Yet The Boat, like Akin's film, leaves you feeling not depressed but instead strangely uplifted by the cataclysms that have befallen, or seem set to befall, its characters.

The narrator of the opening story, Nam, is (as was the author) a student at the famed Iowa Writers' Workshop, and he has a major assignment due. "Just write a story about Vietnam," is the advice of a fellow student, when told of Nam's writer's block: after all, ethnic is hot! Whereupon Nam's father, a survivor of the My Lai massacre and three years of "re-education" by the Vietcong, arrives from Sydney on a visit, and what at first seems wonderful source material becomes a revelation - of the inviolability of family; of the inadequacy of language for a memory stained by violence, death and separation; and of the writer's obligation nevertheless to try and register that sorrow, to show the resilience of the human spirit in the face of vertiginous reality.

If there is such a thing as a literary stress position, then in the stories that follow, Le, who was born in Vietnam and raised in Melbourne, makes his characters adopt it: there is a child assassin in the Colombian drug wars, a terminally ill painter in New York whose only child is lost to him, and a Hiroshima family in the days before 6 August 1945 - all for whom "trying to think and trying to forget amounted to the same thing." Le's limpid prose is perfectly paced; the versatility of voice and point-of-view is masterly. Exhilarating narrative sleights-of-hand regularly propel these fictions in unexpected directions.

Kafka's dictum - alluded to in the closing image of the first story - was that literature should be the axe which breaks open the frozen sea within us. The Boat is an icebreaker, all right: there is nowhere, it seems, that it is not prepared to go.

Cover: June 2008

June 2008

From the front page

Media unites

Legislation is needed urgently to protect the public’s right to know

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Vanishing voices

The cultural damage of homogenising language

Illustration

At home in the Antarctic

The screenwriters living with the crew of Mawson station

Image of the University of Sydney

Flat-earthers

The Australian’s crusade on free speech in universities


In This Issue

Keith Windschuttle and Robert Edgerton: a comparison of texts

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Nana Mouskouri & Frank Hardy

Wilfred Burchett booklist

Agent of influence

Reassessing Wilfred Burchett

More in Arts & Letters

Photo of Blackpink at Coachella

Seoul trained: K-pop and Blackpink

Trying to find meaning in the carefully formulated culture of K-pop

Cover image of Underland by Robert Macfarlane

The chthonic realms explored in Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Underland’

Cave systems, mines, urban sewers, mycelial networks, moulins and more

Still image from 'High Life'

A master’s misstep: Claire Denis’ ‘High Life’

The French auteur chooses a sci-fi film to start over-explaining things

Photo of Leonard French underneath his stained glass ceiling at the National Gallery of Victoria.

Leonard French’s Balzacian life

Reg MacDonald’s biography may return this Australian artist to the national imagination


More in Noted

Still image from ‘Assembly’ by Angelica Mesiti

‘Assembly’ by Angelica Mesiti at Venice Biennale

The democratic ideal is explored in the Australian Pavilion’s video installation

Cover image of 'Animalia' by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo

‘Animalia’ by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo

The French author delivers a pastoral that turns on human cruelty

‘The Essential Duchamp’ at the Art Gallery of NSW

A comprehensive exhibition of the 20th century’s most influential artist

‘Room for a Stranger’ by Melanie Cheng

The medico-writer delivers a novel driven less by storyline than accumulated observation


Read on

Image of the University of Sydney

Flat-earthers

The Australian’s crusade on free speech in universities

Image of Quarterly Essay 74, ‘The Prosperity Gospel’, by Erik Jensen

Everymen don’t exist

On the campaign trail with Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten – a Quarterly Essay extract

Image from ‘Fleabag’

Falling for ‘Fleabag’

On the problematic hotness of Andrew Scott’s Hot Priest

Image of Costume at Dark Mofo

Dark Mofo 2019: Costume

The Tasmanian electro-orchestral pop artist makes a beguiling debut in Hobart


×
×