In the online age, there is no escaping biography: it has become easily, almost oppressively, available. Yet, hoping to write the life story of his grandfather – Catholic intellectual, lawyer and survivor of Vietnam’s Chí Hòa Prison – Anam’s unnamed narrator, a human rights lawyer, discovers how narrative’s memorialising drive – with its desire for rationalist clarity, for animating detail, for the who what when where why how – fails to accommodate his forebear’s life, which becomes instead a disappearing act, a rumination on narrative, time and history’s longue durée.
Anam (Hamish Hamilton), André Dao’s debut novel, mixes fact and fiction. In this respect, it might be called autofiction – another disappearing act – anchored by the narrator’s “I”, whose simulacrum of veracity is aided and abetted by the philosopher’s analytic impulse and a sense of lived experience interpellated throughout the narrative (rueful reflections on the life of the writer with children; a wonderful set-piece conversation with his partner, who criticises him for his “patriarchal” affinities and lack of attention to his grandmother’s narrative; a family who eagerly anticipate “the novel” and whatever parallel lives await them between its covers). It is as if Dao were suggesting that what nominally amounts to fiction may still annex some of that territory we usually associate with memoir, with its putatively stronger claim to interiority and biographical veracity. (Amusingly, Anam’s narrator recounts an alternative version of his family history written by a novelist whose imprimatur is validated by possessing a Pulitzer, a superior passport [“a white author, someone from New York”] and jacket copy duly commending the novel for arriving as a “lyrical meditation”.)
History is not cohesive, polite or tidy: it is crowded with previous tenants and shrinking reserves of time. As it accumulates, our own lives, inevitably, diminish. The narrator struggles with the needs of the present and those of the past, finding that history – including the history of the present – is inhabited by those to whom we owe something. Which of these we are we responsible for? Our country, our family, our ethnicity, ourselves? In the singular form, or the plural? We are always invoking ghosts; it is a kind of indomitable loneliness. A desire, Dao’s narrator realises, to speak with what will not – what cannot – reply.
Javier Marías once described fiction as a story fully told: what is done is done conclusively. Unlike the truth, there can be no argument over the precise details of what actually happened. Don Quixote dies at the appointed hour and remains there, dying forever. Yet fiction is not a lie, because there is no truth prior to fiction: in order for something to be a lie there must be something true against which to distinguish it – and nothing in fiction, in that sense, is “true”. Marías says “it belongs more to invention than to lies”. It is all as true or as false as the author decides.
This is a book that registers the delicate balance between memory and forgetting, truth and fiction. It took Dao over a decade to complete, yet it is clear the work was yielded, not only by 12 years of craft, but by the years preceding it, extending all the way back to 1930s Hanoi.
In this respect, Anam’s tenderly crafted narrative recalls Walter Benjamin, who spoke of how “traces of the storyteller cling to the story the way the handprints of the potter cling to the clay vessel”. What Anam’s narrator achieves is to place his family inside that vessel, the novel, such that, as Benjamin says of the aura an object may convey, they become mutually constitutive. The act is one of love, granting (or attributing) a second life to family and to history, allowing them to speak beyond what is finite, what is lived through and irretrievably lost: to gesture toward a record that goes on, informing us of what has disappeared yet somehow still remains, capable of rising again to greet us.
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