Two Reviews at Once

‘The Quiet American’ by Graham Greene and ‘Postcards from Nam’ by Uyen Nicole Duong.

I’m posting these two reviews together because my time over the past few weeks, while I was reading these two books, has been taken up writing my Christian story for AlfieDog.  They shall probably be the last on Vietnam that I shall tackle for a while.  I am considering writing my own story about the Vietnam War (what the Vietnamese call the ‘American War’) and both these two and ‘The Girl in the Picture’ (two posts ago) provided valuable background detail.

Set at the very end of French colonial period (1954), ‘The Quiet American’ concerns Thomas Fowler, a British journalist covering The War.  A dope smoker and a cynic, he is determined not to take sides or ‘get involved’ at all – except with the beautiful Saigonese girl, Phuong – his surname was apt in a very Dickensian way.  ‘The Quiet American’ featured the typical Greene scenario, man abroad in remote colonies with the usual Roman Catholic wife who wouldn’t divorce him.  The non-noisy Yankee himself, Alden Pyle, is, on the other hand, naive, in the Far East for the first time, but quite sure that all Indochina’s problems can resolved by a ‘Third Force’, something he has read about in books by York Harding but never experienced.   Interestingly, this novel is named for someone who is not the main character, even though it is written in the first person (Fowler’s).

Greene wrsaigon_hotelote in an understated style which doesn’t get in the way of the storyline.  The novel is unhurried, occasionally rambling, allowing ample room for character development, although I think we get the picture on Fowler and Pyle quiet early on, then have to suffer it being repeated… er… repeatedly.  Phuong is more complicated, apparently sweet and innocent, but managed by an older sister who is determined to marry her off to a wealthy westerner.  She moves between Fowler, then Pyle, then Fowler again, doing and saying whatever she thinks will please them, all the time calculating which of them is the better prospect.  The saying ‘Marriage is not above love, you know’ comes to mind.saigon_cathedral

‘The Quiet American’ is a valuable primary source (because Greene spent some time in Vietnam), not least because it was published in 1955 and thereby not written under the shadow of the USA’s defeat.  It confirmed what I suspected – contrary to the message presented in every Vietnamese museum – that there was some accommodation between the French colonialists and the native Vietnamese, many of whom made the effort to learn French, as well as bringing to life some of the grander hotels and government buildings which I saw in Saigon.  Pity Greene didn’t like the cathedral – I quite liked it.

‘Postcards From Nam’ is not what I imagined from its title.  In case you were wondering, I had in mind an American soldier writing home, possibly to his girlfriend.  I also bore in mind that a sign reading ‘Nam’ in Vietnam usually indicated mens’ toilets, whereas the ‘Viets’ were one of the many ethnic groups inhabiting that particular narrow strip of the Pacific coast.  The word however has another meaning, that of a nation, and it can also, as in the case of this story, be a boy’s name.  The novel is about a first generation immigrant from Saigon, who is now a successful lawyer in America.  For years, she has received (what I considered to be) creepy post cards, postmarked in Thailand, from somebody called ‘Nam’.  However, neither the author, nor the main character, take on board the fact that she is being stalked and – even more unbelievable – neither Mimi nor her mother can remember that Nam was their neighbour in Saigon, even though the mother is contact with his parents who have moved to California.  The story digresses frequently, from the current day to a few years ago, back to Vietnam in the 1960s when Mimi was a small child, then back to some point in her life in the United States.

What thimodern_saigons work does address very effectively is the appalling suffering of the Vietnamese people after the Americans left and the Communist Viet Minh government took over.  Every Vietnamese we spoke to – even our very PC guide in Hanoi – made the point that life became much worse at this time.  What this book is not short on is vivid and horrific detail, for instance, of the maternity hospital in Saigon, where mothers laboured in a corridor in filth.  The written style was often clunky, but did include some amazing vivid descriptive passages, such as ‘My eyes, throat, and skin were cracking, and liquid was sucked out of me, and I was ready to die like a dehydrated, crumbled leaf, losing its stem, forever departing from its tree, tumbling down, down, down until it could fall no father, onto a damp ground where it gradually disappeared into the earth.  Back to its roots.’  Unfortunately, the ending of the story is ambiguous and inconclusive.

Well, Dear Reader, do I recommend these two novels?  Yes and no.  Graham Greene is Graham Greene and, although ‘The Quiet American’ was competent, I wonder if his publisher didn’t howl, “Really, Graham, we’ve done Catholic wives before.  Many times.  And the colonies.”   ‘Postcards from Nam’, on the other hand, is strong stuff, not for the faint-hearted, but significant for tackling issues which we in the west were only dimly aware of at the time and have now largely forgotten.

Hallelujah!

Dear Reader, do you recall, a few month ago, a blogger who bewailed her rejections and despaired of ever getting into print again?   (‘Coping with Rejection – 4 September.) Well, it seems that acceptances, like buses, come in threes.  I am very chuffed about being able to add some more links to ‘Some of Charlie Britten’s Published Stories’ in the left-hand panel:  ‘Visiting My Penfriend’ (CafeLit) (which was actually published in September); ‘Light My Fire’ (Every Day Fiction – I November) and ‘Daniel and the Pussycats’ (The Copperfield Review – current edition).   All of these publications are ones I’m very proud to appear in.

Also, I have just had a Christian story accepted for www.AlfieDog.com, for which I’m currently sorting out the contract.  (It seems weird to have a contract for a piece of two thousand words, but this seems to be the way things are going.)

I have to confessGreen-eyed cat looking jealous. that my pathetic self of a few weeks ago would have been absolutely disgusted to have read a post like this one.  How dare she boast like this, I would have screamed inwardly, whilst forcing a tight smile and saying to myself that rejection is all part of the writing game.  I trust this comes out right… but I do hope that nobody reading this is feeling like that now.  What I can say is that I sweated blood getting all of those stories right, not right just for the editor, but for me as well.  ‘Light My Fire’ and the AlfieDog story were both re-writes and, with my daughter having her baby and with not being able to write during our half term visits, editing of these two took several weeks.  ‘Visiting My Penfriend’ was also worked on and worked on.  ‘Daniel and the Pussycats’ came more spontaneously as it was – in part – humorous, and humour comes more easily to me than passion and angst.

If you read my About page, you would see that during 2013 I aimed to have something published in womag and to have completed The Novel.  Dear Reader, I have failed on both counts.  Not one word has been added to The Novel since I started this blog and I expect that my one outstanding womag sub has been hanging about too long for anything positive to happen.  I have other stories ‘in the rough’ which could be sent womag-wards, but, DR, it’s finding the ttypewriter150ime and the energy to edit even one or two works to the sort of standard that womags expect.  I’m not doing NaWriMo; I couldn’t even consider it.  Even though the big event (arrival of grandson) has now happened, things keep happening in my life and taking up my writing time.  I’m not the only writer who works, but I’m blowed if I  know how the others manage.  I shall spend this coming weekend preparing for a teaching observation next week.

And, DR, just in case you are feeling as jealous as I would have been, you may safely continue to read this blog.  I only have three subs out there at the moment and I’m not holding my breath for any of them.

We All Live in a Global Village, Don’t We?

What people mean by this cliche is that everyone can get on the World Wide Web and read anything and everything that’s on the internet. So, the whole world could read my blog and my stories, in theory – but is that very likely?

On holiday last summer, my husband and I accessed the internet from the Far East – along with several billion other users. Too busy – and too mean – to buy local SIM cards in every place we visited, we used hotel wifi, with the result that our smart phones and iPads used to bleep like security tags on stolen goods every time we walked through our hotel lobby. There was no difficulty in accessing the internet out there. In fact, in Saigon airport, which appears to be served by several different routers, I ‘played’ with it, adjusting my phone settings as I walked from zone to zone. But I don’t think anyone is reading Charlie Britten’s opus in Saigon.

Move on a few months to this week – half term week. We spent the first few days with daughter, son-in-law and grandson in Sussex, using their wifi – so far, so good. The problems started at Gatwick when we got out the iPads to while away the inevitable long wait, only to find that the airport wifi was only available if you paid for it, or ate at a cafe with wifi. Didn’t some actor in ‘Apocalypse Now’ have some line about still being in Saigon? Thirty five years on, he might have had a (different) point.

My son has just gone ‘volunteering’ at a school in Ecuador, actually in the Amazon rainforest, and, for the first time ever, throughout his many travels, he is off our radar except for an (unpredictable) hour or so of Internet each week. This, we anticipated – but not Gatwick.

We were flying to the Isle of Man to visit mother-in-law. With the optimism of nerds, we took our iPads with us, even though we knew full well that mother-in-law doesn’t do computers, or broadband, or wifi, or anything like it. On our first morning (the day before yesterday), we trotted along to Manx Telecom in Douglas, where a very helpful salesperson fitted us up with Manx Telecom SIMs, but, Dear Reader, back in mother-in-law’s place, in the suburbs of Douglas, the SIMs worked at two speeds only… dead slow and stop.

Oh dear, oh dear. Yes, I know, I’m a terrible nerd and I really should be able to Do Without the Internet for three days. In reality, it was a minor inconvenience, although I did – as always – have Work To Do. So, here I am writing, using Pages, at nearly 2am, hoping to upload… soon, please… and thinking with the clarity which comes in the dead of night.

Not everybody has the internet. I should be able to tell you how many people in the world do, and how many don’t – but I can’t do that, for reasons which will now have become obvious. What I do know is that, even in the developed world, large demographics don’t: many of the elderly, the destitute, people who live in remote places and people who live in awkward places which transmitter towers can’t reach. Free newspapers on the Isle of Man advertise an excellent wifi service through Wi-Mann, with free access available from about forty shops and other locations on the island. (One of them is Ronaldsway airport, from where I intend to upload this post tomorrow.)

As a society, we ignore – at our peril – the substantial number of people who do not use internet, even though they are not cool… seeing as they don’t live in the South East, live in the country, aren’t in work, live behind mountains and might be elderly. And – writers beware – they could be our readers. So, do continue subbing to print mags and, more importantly, keep reading and buying them so that they stay in circulation and in print.

Post-script: I am now sitting at Ronaldsway airport. The Manx Telecom 3G now works perfectly, but not the much-trumpeted airport wifi, which is ‘disabled’ on my phone, so I cannot upload on to my blog the photos I took this morning. Oh, for home and BT.