Isabel Allende, Introduction of Lan Cao

Mar 04, 2020 by Lan Cao, in Monkey Bridge

Having Book Passage as my second home – I sleep here sometimes in a sleeping bag on that corner, and Elaine Petrocelli as a friend has many advantages for which I am very grateful. There are some inconveniences, however. One of them is that Elaine gives me stacks of manuscripts, uncorrected proofs and unreadable books and expects me to give her a report on each one of them. Books pile up in my home like the bricks of a Babel Tower and the task of reading them has seriously affected my nerves and my sex life.

Once in a while, however, she surprises me with a rare jewel. It may come in the form of an unassuming book with a nondescript cover from a new author I know nothing about. After reading a couple of paragraphs I realize, in gratitude and awe, that this book is an invitation to explore, hand in hand with the author a realm from which it won’t be easy to escape. I fall under the spell of a story that will not abandon me for weeks, months, maybe, forever, a memorable story that echoes inside me and speaks of my own fears and hopes. This was the case of Monkey Bridge by Lan Cao. And this is why I am here: to tell you that you can’t leave Book Passage tonight without a copy of this book.

A monkey bridge is a slim bridge made of long bamboo sticks. You walk on one piece of bamboo and there are two ropes or bamboos on the sides that you can hold on to. It moves up and down and from side to side with each step. It is like walking on a tight rope over an abyss. It can be a nightmare, unless you are a Vietnamese peasant and have used it all your life. This is how Lan Cao describes it:

“From afar, or even up close, the bridge is nothing more than a thin, unsteady shimmer of bamboo. It could take outsiders, or the uninitiated, by complete surprise, when they realize that this, this uncommanding structure, lacking completely in width and strength, was what they were expected to place their entire body weight on. And more than that, propel themselves forward and across. The secret of such crossings lies in the ability to set aside the process itself in favor of seeing the act whole and complete. It would be dangerous, of course. But we had no other bridge and rivers had to be crossed, so why not pretend that we could do it with instinct and ease?”

Lan Cao’s book is truly a monkey bridge between two cultures, two countries, two races: Vietnam and the United States. To cross a bridge like that you need to move swiftly, never looking down, or hesitating, you have to feel confident that the rhythm of your steps and the natural balance of your body will take you to the other side. This is exactly what Lan Cao does in her book. With incredible lightness, balance and elegance she goes back and forth on the bridge, crossing over an abyss of pain, loss, separation and exile, connecting on one level the opposite realities of Vietnam and North America, and on a deeper level the realities of the material world and the world of the spirits. It is a story of survivors and refugees, but it is not only about death and the horrors of war; it is really about the unbearable love of a mother for her daughter and how she liberates her from the bad karma and the hosts of the past. It is a moving story with a surprise ending.

In this extraordinary book Lan Cao gives us a new perspective on Vietnam. Now we can see the war from the rat holes, the tunnels, the boats, the villages burnt to ashes and the rice fields turned to deserts by a killer with an innocent name: Orange Agent. Like the young protagonist of her novel, Lan Cao was born in Vietnam and immigrated to the United States in 1975 just before the defeat and withdrawal of American troops from Saigon. Like her protagonist, she was born in a country marked by the scars of a thousand years of violence, a beautiful land that has been invaded for centuries, yet never conquered. And like her, she became a modern educated American woman. But the memories will always be there. Like her country she has indelible scars

Once I heard a poet describe scars as “proud flesh.” And proud flesh they are indeed because they remind us of our story, our strength, our capacity to heal.

Thank you, Lan Cao, for this extraordinary book, for giving us the opportunity to see the other side of the Vietnam War and for sharing your story and your proud flesh with us. Thank you for carrying us so gracefully through a fragile and precious monkey bridge.