The Lotus and the Storm.
Lan Cao's The Lotus and the Storm is a Vietnamese American war novel that focuses primarily on the traumas of the protagonist-daughter Mai and of her father Minh. The novel's twenty-nine chapters are divided into three parts, and the point of view in each chapter alternates between that of Mai, Minh, and Bao (Mai's alter ego). Events in Cao's novel are narrated in non-chronological order, as the past and the present are intermixed into a complicated narrative fabric.
The novel begins with the years 1963-1964, in wartime South Vietnam. Mai and her older sister Khanh grew up in a wealthy family. Their mother, Quy, was a successful and beautiful businesswoman, and their father was a high-ranking colonel of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. In their childhood, Mai and Khanh, under the tutelage of a Chinese maid, whom they affectionately referred to as Grandma, befriended James Baker, an amiable American serviceman at a nearby military compound. One day, when Mai and Khanh were in Minh's car on their way to see James, Khanh unfortunately got killed, at the age of thirteen, by a bullet that had targeted Minh. The death of Khanh had an extremely negative impact upon every member of the family, and Mai stopped talking after the tragic incident. Her parents, superstitiously believing that Mai was being manipulated by a ghost, asked a spirit exorcist to free her. James then became Mai's English tutor, and he cheered her up: "that is how my [Mai's] second life with James begins" (140).
Quy, the mother, was an anticommunist whose Catholic father had been executed by the communists for being a rich landowner, and her brother--whom Mai refers to as Uncle Number Five--was a Vietcong operative. This political division created personal tension between Quy, her husband Minh, and her brother whenever the latest paid a visit. During the war, Phong (a.k.a Uncle Number Two) was one of Minh's best friends, and both of them held important positions in the South Vietnamese government. Although Quy already was married and had two children, Phong developed a clandestine affection for her, but as his love was not requited, he married Thu. During the Tet Offensive of 1968, Phong was blown to the ground, and he lost one of his legs.
In 1966, Minh met John Clifford (or Cliff), who came to Vietnam as an American adviser, and they developed a strong friendship. Like Phong, Cliff also found Quy romantically desirable. It is Cliff who later saved Minh's life when Minh became severely injured at the Cambodian border during a military operation. When the communists took over South Vietnam in April 1975, Mai and Minh were airlifted out of the country and then resettled as refugees in Northern Virginia, but Quy decided to stay in Vietnam. It is revealed later in the novel that it is Cliff who had arranged for Mai and Minh's successful departure amid the chaos of Saigon on the last day of the war.
The narrative present in the novel is set in the year of 2006, in Virginia. After arriving in America, Mai, a law graduate, works as a librarian for a law firm. Minh and Mai live together in an apartment, and everyday Mrs. An comes over to take care of Minh and provide his meals. Minh, now an incapacitated and senile man, suffers from PTSD: "It has been more than thirty years since Vietnam fell. But 1975 is still here, held to enormous scale inside me" (24). The past so haunts him that he is unable to liberate himself from its effects. His mind transports him back to wartime Vietnam, and he struggles psychologically and emotionally with the death of Khanh, with his affection for Quy, and with the intricacies of his experiences in the war. The news on television about the American War in Iraq exacerbates his PTSD. In Northern Virginia, Minh finds solace in Vietnamese songs, food, and stories told by other Vietnamese refugees. He is suffocated by his nostalgia and "longings for things past" (272).
Mai suffers from "dissociative identity disorder" (236), and the voice of her alter ego, Bao, enters the second half of the novel. When Mai was a child, her father often called her Bao, which means the treasure. However, in the aftermath of the war, her alter ego becomes Bao, which means the storm. The third part of the novel portrays Mai's opposing identities: on the one hand, Bao blames Mai for her Americanness and assimilation; on the other hand, Bao sees Mai "becoming not American but simply un-Vietnamese" (265). Truly, Mai is tormented by traumatic memories, personality disorder, and internal turbulence: "She wants to be freed of memory, its empty shape, its hardened imprints. Vietnam for her is a tragedy of forms, to be sloughed off" (240). Both Minh and Mai live their "half-lives" in the United States, and Mai frequently is haunted by ghosts of the past, her separation from Quy, her mother's incomprehensible decisions, and family secrets.
Due to his physical and mental conditions, Minh is transferred into a nursing home. While there, Minh meets Phong again after more than twenty-five years. Mai gains access to information related to her mother, Phong, Cliff, and postwar Vietnam from letters Phong and Cliff have written to Minh. Surprisingly, Phong admits that, although he worked for the South Vietnamese government during the war, Phong, who now lives in California, had always been a Vietcong operative. After the communist victory in 1975, Phong and Uncle Number Five tried to protect Quy from mistreatment by government officials due to her former anticommunist background. Postwar life in South Vietnam was unbearable under the communist regime; therefore, Phong, Thu, Quy, and Uncle Number Five found it necessary to escape from Vietnam as boat people only a few years after the war ended. Phong tells Minh that Quy died in 1978, after she had been raped by pirates during her perilous attempt to escape, that Uncle Number Five was beaten to death at a refugee camp in Malaysia because he was discovered to be a Vietcong, and that Thu had committed suicide.
In their conversation at Minh's deathbed, Phong also reveals to Minh that Quy was pregnant in 1975, and her child was born immediately after the fall of Saigon. Minh becomes furious because he knows the child was not his own, because it is a mixed-race Amerasian. Due to discrimination against the Amerasians in postwar Vietnam, the child was sent to an orphanage in Vung Tau. After arriving in the United States, Cliff often wrote to Minh and sent him money, but Minh refused to communicate with Cliff. Minh then dies in the nursing home, and Cliff flies to Virginia to attend his funeral. Mai's questions about the mystery of the past that has shrouded her family history for years are answered: Cliff admits his love for Quy; Cliff saved Phong's life at the Cambodian border because he loved Quy; she sacrificed her life for the well-being of Mai and Minh by entering "into a relationship with Phong, who promised to use his influence with the coup leaders to spare your father" (348); and Cliff fathered Quy's Amerasian child.
The novel ends with Mai's return to Vietnam in 2006 to drop her father's ashes into the ocean and to find her abandoned Amerasian sister. While eating breakfast, she reads a newspaper article about a Catholic orphanage and an American veteran who volunteers there. To Mai's great surprise, the American veteran turns out to be James Baker, who did not die during the war as she had thought. James, now in his mid fifties, tells Mai that his Vietnamese wife and four-year-old Amerasian daughter were captured and imprisoned during their escape as a boat people in 1980, and that he, a war drifter, cannot return to America but now lives with his wife and daughter in Saigon. Vietnam has become James's second home, where "[he] has found love" (370). At Mai's hotel, James and Mai make love, but Mai avoids seeing James again during the final days of her visit. The concluding passage of Cao's novel contains a sense of healing and reconciliation.
Structurally, Cao employs a postmodern narrative approach to writing The Lotus and the Storm. The novel blurs the concept of physical time and space as the protagonists travel back and forth between the wartime Vietnam of the 1960s-1970s and the Virginia of the postwar period. Cao integrates important historical snapshots into her narrative; thus, it is important that the reader know the history of the Vietnam War to appreciate the novel's complexity and profundity fully. The novel is personal, psychological, and historical, simultaneously. On a personal level, it is a saga of a Vietnamese family whose members' lives are shattered by the ravages of war and politics. On a psychological level, it examines how the protagonists must live with PTSD, traumatic memories, and dissociative identity disorder. On an historical level, the novel examines the complexities of South Vietnamese history: the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, the self-immolation of the Buddhist monk Venerable Thich Quang Duc as an act of protest against the Diem government's religious oppression, Diem's successors, the Tet Offensive of 1968, the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, the fall of Saigon, and the boat-people experience.
In the novel, Cao vividly depicts the sounds and scents of various images that are closely attached to the experiences of the characters in Vietnam. It is these sounds and aromas that follow Mai and Minh to Virginia, and they symbolize a time long past, about which the characters are nostalgic. For instance, early in the novel, Minh, while driving his Jeep in Saigon in 1963, saw high school girls floating "in their virgin-white ao dais. The acrid smell of diesel and tar lingered in the air, trapped in the earth's steam. [...] A persistent sourness like the odor of damp laundry lifted from the street" (27). Later, in Virginia in 2006, he says, "When the day comes, and it will, when everything, even memory of people, of earth and water, of history, has gone from me, this is what will remain--the dreaming colors of purple evenings, a lavender ao dai that flows this way and that, and a rice field that illumines earth and sky in a shimmer of liquid emerald" (53-54). Similarly, the sounds uttered by a street vendor and the images and scents of tamarind trees, star fruits, and coconut palms from childhood are etched in Mai's mind.
Thematically, The Lotus and the Storm treats the prospect of assimilation versus the status of remaining a perpetual refugee, loyalty versus betrayal, "the lingering threats of war and loss" (169) versus the possibility of ultimate healing and reconciliation. The novel challenges the American concept of successful assimilation, provided that a refugee or immigrant comes to the United States and forgets the past in order to build a brighter future. Historical amnesia does not apply to the lives of the Vietnamese American refugees. In Northern Virginia, the Vietnamese American community protests against communism, flies the former South Vietnamese flag, and mourns the collapse of Saigon: "It is all about reconstructing and reclaiming what is gone" (272); the Little Saigon established in Northern Virginia itself "is part of war's debris. We are here to reminisce and sometimes to denounce. We are here to savage something from the ruinous disorder of defeat" (56). It is a deep-seated anticommunist spirit that solidifies and reunites the Vietnamese American community.
Cao's novel romanticizes South Vietnam prior to the communist takeover. The characters come from an elite family background, and they had lived a comfortable life under the American presence in Vietnam. The Americans portrayed in the novel represent the goodwill of the United States. For example, both James and Cliff are friendly, courteous, and non-condescending Americans. James brings laughter and joy to Mai and Khanh and becomes part of their family. Their father, Minh, praises Cliff for his "willingness to listen [which] distinguished him from the other Americans advisers and endeared him to me immediately" (115). Cliff comes to Vietnam because he wants to "help" the Vietnamese (120), and he "ate whatever we [Minh and his commander] ate. He had not brought the usual C ration cans provided for the American troops" (149). Both James and Cliff are eager to know of Vietnamese culture and history; they want to learn the Vietnamese language, appreciate Vietnamese cuisine, and become part of Vietnam. On the contrary, the Vietcong are portrayed as bloodthirsty killers and thieves. After April 1975, they sent people who had been affiliated with the former Saigon government and the Americans to reeducation camps, confiscated houses, and generated poverty, fear, and paranoia in the South. In sum, The Lotus and the Storm makes an important statement in the corpus of Vietnam War literature. American literature about the Vietnam War has been criticized for its Americacentric perspective because it tends to ignore the sufferings of the Vietnamese during and after the war. The Vietnamese remain invisible in most war narratives produced by U.S. writers. Cao's novel gives the reader a Vietnam that was damaged by war and by the aftermath that saw further suffering both by the Vietnamese nationals who remained to rebuild the nation and by the Vietnamese refugees who escaped but remain haunted by the specters of the past. It is not only U.S. veterans who are victims of PTSD; it is also the Vietnamese nationals and the Vietnamese American refugees who bear the effects of trauma from the period of great violence and destruction. The novel focuses on the story of Vietnamese Americans who, like their co-nationals who remained in Vietnam, are victims the war. However, the Vietnamese Americans could not live peacefully in Vietnam, because the Hanoi regime had labeled them as traitors and reactionaries to be "reeducated" in camps, and they had to flee their homeland. Now they live United States--"the country that both betrays and redeems" (249).
Reviewed by Quan Manh Ha, University of Montana
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|Author:||Quan Manh Ha|
|Publication:||War, Literature & The Arts|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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