Across Monkey Bridge, Asian Pages

Aug 15, 1997 by Lan Cao, in Monkey Bridge
August 1-14, 1997, Twin Cities, Minnesota, By Frank Joseph

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche observed, one hundred years ago, “Humanity is a bridge stretched over an abyss from the past to the future.” His poetic analogy has been most recently brought back to life in a transgenerational, transcultural story by Lan Cao.

But Monkey Bridge is neither fiction woven from whole cloth, nor a thinly veiled historical novel. To be sure, the author’s own flight from her native Vietnam, when she was 13 years old, just before the U.S. military withdrawal, and her rapid American acculturalization with which her emotionally traditional mother had difficulty keeping pace, are the fundamental elements upon which Monkey Bridge was built. But her experience, although deeply personal, was simultaneously universal for refugees forced into the kind of rapid, traumatic transition anyone who has not suffered cannot comprehend.

Lan Cao’s novel is as much about healing the pain left not only by the Vietnam War, but those festering wounds which still divide Americans of that calamitous epoch from the people our action at once victimized and assisted – the Vietnamese. Monkey Bridge is the first true-to-life novel about that conflict and its psychological aftermath written in the United States by an Asian author from the Vietnamese point of view. That viewpoint may be poignantly familiar to ex-refugees of twenty years ago, but it can come as a revelation to Americans whose only awareness of the Vietnam War was vicariously experienced, via their television sets. For veterans, Monkey Bridge will unquestionably deepen their sense of compassion, if not regret for the persons and events caught up in the awful dramas in which they all played a part.

I interviewed Lan Cao during her book tour stop-over in the Twin Cities and heard her read excerpts from Monkey Bridge at St. Paul’s well-known bookstore, Hungry Mind.

There is really nothing to compare with the actual voice of an author, especially when she so deeply identifies with the relentless passion, sometimes sorrowful, often witty, always empathic, that courses throughout her writing. The gathering at Hungry Mind had come unprepared for such power.

The attendees were galvanized by Lan Cao’s voice inflecting such nuances that were intuited more than consciously grasped. She was not reading so many printed words, but acting out a genuine “theater of life” that gathered heart-strings to her own.

This is not to imply that Monkey Bridge is a self-indulgent cry-fest. It is not! Lan Cao’s story is a rite of passage, the hero’s journey of self-conquest, self-mastery that all of us should attempt.

Twisting Shakespeare to this theme: Some of us are born tragic, some of us achieve tragedy and some of us have tragedy thrust upon us. Life is a karmic crossing, which we may nevertheless choose to dare or ignore, with fated consequence we ourselves set in motion. That seems to be the implication of Lan Cao’s insightful work.

The slender crossing over a terrifying abyss is the Monkey Bridge, a lonely passage, even though many others have made it before and since. But its span also links to a brighter future.

Don’t miss this exceptional novel, which is now available at your favorite bookstore.