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.

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