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

Image of Julian Barnes’s ‘The Man in the Red Coat’

Julian Barnes’s playfully incisive ‘The Man in the Red Coat’

This biography of a suave Belle Époque physician doubles as a literary response to Brexit

Photo of Stasi agent

Stasiland now

Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the author of ‘Stasiland’ reveals the ongoing power of the former East German regime, not just in politics and business but also in shaping perceptions of victimhood in unified Germany

Morrison on top

… but voters want climate action too

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Cap in hand

An unprecedented twist in the Walkley Award–winning story of the David Eastman murder case

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

Image of Cardi B

Bodak moment: Pop’s decade of superstars

Cardi B delivered the song of the decade as a new league of superstars overcame the significance of bands

Photo of Liam Gallagher

Don’t look back in anger: Liam and Noel Gallagher

As interest in Oasis resurges, talking to the combative brothers recalls their glory years as ‘dirty chancers, stealing riffs instead of Ford Fiestas’

Conversion on the way to Damascus by Caravaggio

Damascene subversion: Christos Tsiolkas’s ‘Damascus’

The literary storyteller’s latest novel wrestles with the mythology of Christianity’s founder, Paul the Apostle

Cover of Peter Pomerantsev’s ‘This Is Not Propaganda’ [detail]

Agents of chaos: Peter Pomerantsev’s ‘This is Not Propaganda’

The Russian expat journalist wonders if democracy can survive the internet, as social media is used to promote feelings over facts

More in Noted

Utagawa Yoshimori, The Tongue-cut Sparrow [detail]

‘Japan supernatural’

The Art Gallery of NSW’s examination of Japan’s centuries-long artistic traditions depicting the spirit world and the macabre

Cover of ‘The Topeka School’

‘The Topeka School’ by Ben Lerner

The American author’s latest novel canvasses the seething hate speech of the burgeoning alt-right and white-boy rap battles in the Midwest

Image of ‘Wild River, Florida’

‘Civilization: The Way We Live Now’

The beautiful photographs of often grim subjects in NGV Australia’s exhibition raise questions over the medium’s power to critique

Cover of ‘The Testaments’

‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood

The Booker Prize–winning sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is an exhilarating thriller from the “wiliest writer alive”

Read on

Image of Julian Barnes’s ‘The Man in the Red Coat’

Julian Barnes’s playfully incisive ‘The Man in the Red Coat’

This biography of a suave Belle Époque physician doubles as a literary response to Brexit

Image from ‘Atlantics’

Mati Diop’s haunting ‘Atlantics’

The French-Senegalese director channels ancient fables and contemporary nightmares in this ghostly love story

Image of Nasty Cherry

‘I’m with the Band: Nasty Cherry’

This Netflix series pays lip service to female empowerment in the music industry, but ultimately reinforces its limits

Image from ‘The Crown’

Streaming highlights: November 2019

‘The Crown’, ‘For All Mankind’ and ‘Dickinson’ offer new perspectives on history, and pragmatism meets pyramid schemes in ‘On Becoming a God in Central Florida’