Linda Le. The Three Fates.
Linda Le is a highly regarded French novelist whose work is not well known in this country. Perhaps the publication of Mark Polizzotti's splendid English translation of her 1997 novel The Three Fates (Les Trois Parques) will change that. Le's is a major talent, the more surprising because she is so prolific, having published over fifteen books since she began her writing career in 1987, at the age of twenty-four. Although the writer has stated that she does not want her novels to be read as autobiography, it is worth noting that Le was born in Vietnam in 1963, that her family was forced to move from Dalat to Saigon when she was only six years old (a traumatic passage through landscapes with human corpses), that her parents' marriage began to implode, undoubtedly partly under the strain of war and all the terror and uncertainty it brings, and that she, her mother and two sisters fled Vietnam for Le's mother's native France in 1977. Left behind was Le's father, who was not a French speaker. Though he and his daughter Linda carried on a regular correspondence--he was her "ideal reader"--she never again saw him alive after leaving Saigon. Almost twenty years later, on the cusp of visiting his family in France, he died; his death was more devastating to the novelist than a father's death typically is.
We see more than glimmerings of this history in The Three Fates. The novel, narrated by a young intellectual who has lost her hand (she is called Southpaw by her family), concerns two sisters and their cousin, the narrator, and their now-dead, wealthy grandmother who had spirited them away from Vietnam and from her son as the war ground on. The sisters are intent on bringing their father, whom they refer to as King Lear, to France to taunt him with their good fortune--the handsome materialism of their lives, primarily--before sending him back to spend the rest of his life, presumably, bitterly bemoaning his dispossession and poverty. Only Southpaw finds this plan objectionable on moral and humanitarian grounds, but Le's Cordelia is not listened to any more than Shakespeare's is.
Loss, alienation, displacement and exile suffuse this novel, but the prevailing emotional tone has none of the gently elegiac tinge these things often produce. Instead, the tone of the narrator's voice is a scornful and sustained fury, applied with a razor's edge of satire, and Le's performance of these emotions is astonishingly creative and brilliant. Her narrator's voice is excoriating, her insights into the other characters in the novel thoroughly uncharitable. Her silent rants and invectives (silent because they mostly exist in her mind, rather than in others' eardrums), which constitute die main material of the novel, are expressed in one extended metaphor after another, the one carrying the reader into the next. She has a wicked tongue, does Southpaw, even if she keeps it in her mouth, and it is fortunate for the family's tentative domestic peace that her cousins merely think of her as (variously) a bird of ill omen, a Cassandra, a cripple, a bat, a witch and a doonrsayer: someone to be both appalled by and dreaded but mostly ridiculed and, in the end, dismissed. But her voice in this novel will not be dismissed: it is compulsive and obsessive, it cannot stop skewering her family and even herself (as she imagines others see her); it insists on bearing unflinching witness to the world and to history'.
Despite the Lear motif, The Three Fates is not a novel with a strong plot, Shakespearean or otherwise; Lear never even gets an hour to strut upon the stage, mouth agog, of his elder daughter's "spanking new house, tricked out with all the West's dazzling mod cons. His anticipated (and, to Southpaw, painful) visit does not materialize. Lear has been dispossessed of a fortune, certainly, but the agent has been the Communists, not his daughters or even his mother, the "Lady Jackal." The father is perhaps a symbol of Vietnam, a patriarchal society at the time of the war; and in that sense his children have betrayed him. (On the other hand, the saprophytes who have returned after the war's conclusions have done so to feed on the corpse of their country, which constitutes a different kind of betrayal to the narrator.) In the place of the three witches--if they are not the grandmother and her two granddaughters--there are the three Fates, which is fitting enough. The greed of Regan and Goneril is closely matched by that of Southpaw's female relatives. But perhaps the closest connection to Shakespeare's play is the despair that surfaces, most often in glimpses of Southpaw's reading material. Here is a not atypical passage: "We are but chessmen, destined, it is plain, That great chess-player, Heaven, to entertain; It moves us on life's chessboard to and fro, And then in death's dark box shuts up again." In Le's novel, this quote is treated as prose, but surely it is taken from Fitzgerald's translation of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat, and it is very close in spirit to Gloucester's famous lines about the sporting of boys and of gods.
Elsewhere in the novel, God is referred to as the Great Deaf-Mute. The narrator (who imagines herself into the minds of the novel's other characters) captures the voice and thoughts of her uncle's one friend, a once-saintly old priest, the "Wheezer," who lost his faith and his voice after prolonged torturing by the Communists. No God came to save either him, despite his shrieks of pain, or his fellow sufferers. For
his ears remained stopped up. He heard only a continuous buzzing from below, swelling the blue vellum. Luckily, that was some tough material he had beneath his feet; it had never ripped, not even under intense pressure. The Great Deaf-Mute was at peace. He trundled about from slaughterhouse to slaughterhouse.... He could sit for days on the same heap of bones and carrion, filling his nostrils with the reeking silence. The Wheezer was perfectly aware of this. He had seen the slaughterhouse Inspector lean over his damp pit, sniff, and move on because it smelled like rage and discontent in there, and death hadn't yet flown down with its xyster.
I hope this passage gives some indication of the richness of Le's prose. Generally when reviewing, it is easy to pick and choose a worthy, an emblematic, passage to quote. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that virtually every passage in her novel is worth quoting. Here is a description of the older cousin, Potbelly (the name indicates her advanced state of pregnancy and also her appetite for food and cooking), as she lies in bed next to her stolid, solid husband, a prosperous manufacturer of prosaic nuts and bolts, of German descent but a follower of the Dalai Lama. Potbelly, visited by the ghost of the Lady Jackal at nights, has trouble sleeping, pressed against her husband's broad back. Potbelly thinks,
the wall could handle any chore, no doubt about it, but did one marry a wall, even one built of chalk and sand? And, in bed, a wall, even coated in Tibetan wisdom, didn't exactly make you break out in a sweat. It was all of a piece, clean and angular. It didn't stink of vice, musk, lustful spit, lecherous spunk; it smelled nice, like vegetable soap and lavender detergent. It laid itself over you, didn't tickle you anywhere, rubbed against you, bruised your pelvic bone, shuddered a bit, and then it was done. The bricks of Germanic good sense were only good at refrigerating your heart, not to mention the rest of you. ... [And] if the specters of the past could shove you there, against the wall, and train their rifles on you, the rampart would not even feel the ghostly bullets as they tore through your flesh. As if it really were a wall, which wheezed at night to rock you to sleep, and that was all.
Here is the third young woman, Lear's favorite (but no Cordelia), Gorgeous Gams, also referred to by the narrator as Cutie and Darling:
Such long legs, made for prancing at the summit, and condemned, while waiting for the magic cavalcade to sound, to sliding into her cubicle, where they were seen only by the libidinous eyes of little telemarketers fallen on hard times and not about to clamber back up. ... Pegs for which every virgin boy on earth would give up his soul, Theo [GG's narcissistic, exploitive boyfriend] had declared to the entire telemarketing firm. All the literature in the world for a young girl's thigh, Theo had also said, always keeping in reserve an expression he could pull from his sleeve.
Later, after she has kicked him out of her Rue de la Glaciere studio, Theo will compare himself to Don Quixote, "starved by his Dulcinea, the bitch with a heart of stone, a cashbox upstairs, and a guillotine between her Legs."
Le's language itself should capture, should carry readers away as it evolves from image to image, metaphor to metaphor, loops back to pick up the tiniest (but still significant) details--sometimes the only way the reader knows whose consciousness is lighting up the page-- moving backward and forward in time, traveling between Vietnam and France, between modern, tarted-up Saigon ("At night, Saigon lifted to the inky sky its neon-lit face, rouged cheeks, forehead marked with new scarlet letters, and its somber mouth that, at daybreak, disgorged revelers decked in ersatz despair and white linen") and that grande dame of seductresses, Paris. But Le performs some social criticism as well--for example, illustrating how soul-killing and ultimately unsatisfactory, even on material terms, Western materialism is, or on pointing out the absurd ubiquity of idolizing beautiful, slender, "hot" young women, regardless of the content of their characters or their minds.
The Three Fates is a thrilling tour de force, but it is not easy to read. It has no chapter breaks, and not many paragraph breaks, either. The prose is dense, filled with allusions to other literature and to previous passages, metaphors, and incidents. Le's narrative technique is stream-of-consciousness, and as is the case with Woolf's and Joyce's novels; only the attentive reader will keep his or her balance in the shifting movements from consciousness to consciousness.
We are never given a rational reason for Southpaw's loss of a hand. But late in the novel, we are offered another instance of the family's tragic history, which I will not reveal here: it is the supreme shock of the book, and it makes us respond to the narrator in a different way. A story Lady Jackal, the grim Grimm grandmother, tells at about this point, wings us away from reason, from causality, to the world of superstition and folk-tale. It concerns witches' hands, which, according to Vietnamese legend (or private purposes), fly through the night searching for sleeping souls to capture, then return before dawn to be reattached to arms. But if a hand falls in love with a sleeper, it can never return to the witch, with consequences to the witch (loss of power) and to the sleeper (madness). Clearly there are elements here of Christianity and even of Bram Stoker, all in one fertile mix, even if the ogre grandmother--second in malevolence only to the supreme Ogre in the sky--is not conscious of it. It's a story that points to the horrors Le witnessed as a child. And it points as well to other fiction she has written containing severed limbs and heads, emblems of loss and violent separation as human beings ("tough material," as the Great Deaf-Mute says, notwithstanding) are wrenched from home and culture.
Jonna G. Semeiks