Andrea Louie, A Tale of Immigrants, and a World We Still Don’t Know, Chicago Tribune

Mar 07, 2020 by Lan Cao, in Monkey Bridge

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the architecture of words can serve as an illustration for an entire world. Everyone remembers the little Vietnamese girl whose photograph was captured for history as she ran, naked, down a street, screaming from the napalm burning her skin. This picture’s power is that it distills to a single image the overwhelming horror of war. But it never was the entire story.

In matters of faith, it is considered vital to bear witness. One senses that new novelist Lan Cao feels this burden deeply: After all, she is reportedly the first Vietnamese-American fiction writer to be published by a major press.

Even before reading Page 1 of her lovely and sorrowful work, “Monkey Bridge,” one can tell that Cao is urgent to cover a lot of ground. The book is dedicated to her mother (1925-1992), and the few lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” that serve as an epigraph promise, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

So while the photograph of the little Vietnamese girl helps us confront our inhumanity to ourselves, Cao seeks to say that there is much more. There is vivid landscape and subtlety of culture; there are delicate yet fiery tastes to tease the palate; and there is a vast world that we still do not know.

A tiny language lesson on Vietnamese near the end of the novel serves as a wise summation:

“The verbs in our language are not conjugated, because our sense of time is tenseless, indivisible, and knows no end. And that is what I fear. I fear our family history . . . and the imprint it creates in our children’s lives as it rips through one generation and tears apart the next.”

These words are written in a journal by Nguyen Van Binh, a woman who escaped from Saigon during the final, chaotic days when American troops withdrew from Vietnam in 1975. In advance, she had sent her 13-year-old daughter, Mai, to live with friends in America. Their transition to life in the U.S. is the story–at once funny and painful–that has been told by countless immigrants. Nguyen is addicted to watching “The Bionic Woman,” yet cannot navigate the enormous, air-conditioned American supermarket. Mai is mortified by her mother’s loud voice in public places but feels overwhelmingly protective of her even as Mai tries to escape by attending a faraway college.

The ghost who haunts and guides them is Nguyen’s father, Baba Quan, who remains lost in Vietnam. Nguyen and her father had missed each other at their rendezvous on April 30, 1975, when a car was supposed to take them to an American plane, and Nguyen had to leave without him. Guilt and love move her, again and again, to revisit memories of childhood, her beloved French convent boarding school, her marriage at age 15 to a dashing Vietnamese intellectual-activist, and the war that ultimately destroyed her world.

The book’s title refers to the thin bamboo bridges used by rural Vietnamese for centuries to cross rivers, especially during flood seasons. The allusion serves as a graceful and evocative metaphor for Nguyen and her daughter as they attempt to navigate from their past to reach what they hope will be the safer mooring of life in America.

While the novel is essentially constructed as the often-told two stories of mother and daughter, Mai’s slim presence and relatively meager challenges do little to move the plot forward. The bulk of the novel is narrated in her first-person voice, and this does a disservice to the mother’s more powerful story.

Readers may be touched that years later, Mai returns to her childhood family room and finds a still-shiny penny where she had hidden it, in the crevice between the carpet and the wall, but such passages pale emotionally compared to Nguyen’s narrative. The mother, for example, remembers the young men of her village whose index fingers were cut off by families desperate to save their sons from the draft: “It was 1968, and Vietnam was becoming a land of fingerless eighteen-year-old boys.”

The secret journal in which Nguyen records her furtive fears is discovered and read by Mai, and this is how the younger woman learns her family secrets. The use of a diary to relay information seems like an awkward literary device in this novel, especially because Nguyen is supposed to be partially incapacitated after suffering a stroke. But these are also the most beautifully rendered passages, and often the most interesting.

For example, in an especially telling passage, Nguyen recalls that in Vietnam, well-intentioned American servicemen gave villagers shiny new cooking stoves that did not emit smoke. In less than a month, however, the villagers came to realize that the metal stoves were worthless: Whenever they had cooked with their old stoves, the smoke would exterminate the termites and other pests that lived in their thatched roofs. Now, the pests “suddenly thrived, causing damage not just to the roofs but even the foundations of houses.

“And so, when the men came back for another visit, they were surprised to see their stoves blackened and abandoned like carcasses along the roadside.”

Western readers are fortunate to have Cao contribute to the modest body of work that goes beyond wartime and reaches for Vietnam’s lush heart. She joins Robert Olen Butler (who won a Pulitzer Prize for “A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain”) and Duong Thu Huong, whose works are available to us in beautiful translation from the original Vietnamese (“Paradise of the Blind”).

It is the splendid poetry of such works that provides an emotional and visual illustration of what it means to be human.