Paul Giffard-Foret reviews Anam by André Dao
by André Dao
Reviewed by PAUL GIFFARD-FORET
André Dao’s debut novel Anam is like a house with many rooms and windows, to use an image employed by its author. Its multiple locales account for the shattering, scattering, and smattering of Vietnamese people across the globe, and their resettlement in outer migrant suburbs, in Paris’ Boissy-Saint-Léger or Melbourne’s Footscray. Alongside a distinctly cosmopolitan, diasporic feel, the novel opens up a thought-provoking cultural conversation on Vietnam’s colonial and postcolonial histories – and in so doing, digs up a lot of mud. This endeavour may have been facilitated by Dao’s outsider perspective as a Viet Kieu (Overseas Vietnamese) born and having grown up in Australia, which provides him with sufficient hindsight. It is no surprise, then, that the names excavated from Vietnam’s past ought to be figures of exile, beginning with Dao’s grandfather. While a Penguin review noted how this “work of autofiction, this part-memoir, part-novel is twelve years in the making”, Dao’s grandfather spent ten years throughout the 1980s at the infamous Chi Hoa jail located in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) as a political prisoner of conscience under the Communist regime, before being sent away on a plane to France upon release. The narrator compares his grandfather to those decimated Angolan antelopes who are the victims of inter-imperialist rivalry and proxy wars in Africa – “he, a colonial subject of an empire that no longer exists, a forgotten ghost of an already embarrassing past”.
Despite associating with a political current of anti-colonial Catholic nationalists, his grandfather collaborated both with the French and Americans in their fight against Communism, failing to understand, after the Fall of Saigon in 1975, that he was now on the losing side of history. Identified as a traitor, he is reluctant to leave the scene and defers his departure from Vietnam. The themes of losing, failing, and waiting (until it is too late) recur over and over again in Dao’s novel. This makes his characters all the more humane and sympathetic as anti-heroes. Dao’s grandfather’s failure to exist in the nation’s archives echoes a fêlure (French for crack, a homonym of the word ‘failure’) in Vietnam’s psyche through its inability to reconcile both streaks of its identity: North and South, East and West. In identifying with none, the narrator looks up instead to interlopers such as Tran Duc Tao or Ngo Vinh Long for authoritative models. The former’s life as an intellectual trained and versed in Western philosophy but keen on liberating his country from colonialism led to the silencing of his voice and turned him into an outcast, both in France and Vietnam. The latter became the first Viet to go to Harvard on a scholarship, in part thanks to his role as native informant (“at fifteen he convinced American officers to hire him as a map-maker”) and ‘mimic man’ (“He taught himself English with a bilingual dictionary and a copy of Great Expectations”). Yet his later involvement in, and commitment to, the anti-war movement would be mocked and dismissed at Harvard, while “on the anti-war speaking circuit” he remained sidelined as a “token Viet”.
Much of the story’s appeal precisely comes from Dao’s refusal to play the token Viet in the eyes of Australia. Indeed, can a narrative taking place to a large extent in France and in Cambridge, England – where the narrator writes his thesis and contemplates settling down on a permanent basis – still be called Australian, or Asian Australian for that matter? Do these territorial labels still make sense when one is aware, as Dao is, of the fact that mapping (of the imagination) precedes and to a certain extent forecloses the possibility of place? When asked whether Australia is home during an interview with an academic researching on an oral history of second-generation Vietnamese in Australia at a community centre in Footscray, the narrator’s answer is no:
She didn’t seem convinced. She pressed me: But you were born here, you grew up here, didn’t you? Your family lived here. Your daughter was born here. How can you say Australia isn’t home for you? Haven’t you had a good education here? Haven’t you prospered here? If Australia isn’t your home, then what is it? A playground, or a marketplace from which you grabbed what you needed? And now you’re off to England, to Cambridge. Will that be home? Or will you wander the earth like – she stretched for the right words – like a rootless thing, like one with no place to rest?
The narrator’s superficial emotional attachment, though, does not stem from lack of care or cold materialism but from the multiple fêlures opened up by the failures to remember and to forget/forgive the past at once. One therefore cannot be nostalgic about home when home no longer exists or never existed, except as a figment of the imagination. One can only melancholically mourn the ghostly traces of that which remains, those haunted fragments or slices of life we dare to call memory, and which make Being a deeply traumatic, problematic event in itself. Though chiefly focused on an attempt at memorialising his grandparents’ and grandfather’s life in particular (whose half-effaced photo features on the book cover), Dao’s novel thus raises metaphysical, existential questions that are larger than the merely anecdotic. In researching on memories of his grandfather, the narrator ends up projecting his personality onto him as a prodigal son of sorts, feeling guilty about endlessly postponing the writing of his memoir. Yet the exercise remains an arduous task, akin to observing far-away galaxies, which, owing to the speed of light, may already be long gone and dead by the time their image reaches the astronomer’s telescope. It means accepting to warp and write oneself into another’s spatial temporality in the disjointed mode of future anteriority. The narration of the novel, indeed, starts off by means of such a mode and creative black hole: “This will be the last time that I will have begun again – the last, because I will have learnt to see what I failed to see at the beginning.”
The novel’s title, Anam (otherwise spelled Annam), once referred to the French protectorate for Vietnam, which was part of French Indochina. Its lost currency as a term allows Dao to recall the spirit of Vietnam, which under its spectral shadow becomes the site of an aporia. Dao throughout the novel asks: What makes a people’s collective unconscious when riven by guilt and strategic amnesia and erasure of its own past, as is Vietnam? Can it possibly be based on remembering, on traditions passed on from one generation to the next, when this heritage appears dubious and truncated? As a result, Anam is not a hagiography of Dao’s grandfather, who never had the benefit of having his bronze statue sitting “in pride of place” in the middle of his relatives’ wealthy home in Hanoi, unlike his brother, a former general to Bac Ho (Ho Chi Minh). Nor is it, strictly speaking, a biography since Dao is aware of the shortcomings of reception and representation of someone else’s experience, especially one as incommensurate as the collective famine that took place in 1944-5 and is believed to have killed between one to two million Vietnamese (about one tenth of the total population). Instead, Dao in his writing deploys a number of devices to circumvent some of the pitfalls associated with the literary genre of the memoir. To start with, he makes frequent use of interpolation (i.e, the insertion of something of a different nature into something else) by interweaving and blurring borders between sundry narratives (actual, remembered, imagined), discourses (academic, historiographic, personal) or registers (factual, introspective, fictitious). Interpolation can be opposed to interpellation, that is, the hailing or arrest of the sign and memory attached to it, thereby leading to its reification as monument (like his great-uncle’s bronze bust at the narrator’s relatives’). Another device related to that of interpolation between the author-as-narrator (Dao) and the narrated (Dao’s grandfather) is anamnesis (i.e., the recollection, especially of a supposed previous existence). Dao is acutely cognizant of those filial echoes of the past repeating upon the present and does not seek truthfulness at all costs, only its effects and affects, instead working in part through blind faith in his task as ghost-writer walking in the footsteps of his predecessors and eager to repay his debt. He will work as a lawyer, partly to please his grandfather and partly because his father had failed to do so, owing to the interruptions of war. As a review of the novel by Tess Do reminded, Dao is “a refugee advocate who co-founded Behind the Wire, an oral history project documenting people’s experience of immigration detention”. The narrator’s function is that of an amanuensis (i.e., a literary assistant taking dictation). Hence, the narration bears from within a ventriloquising resonance as Dao records his grandparents’ voice in their tiny apartment on the outskirts of Paris in Boissy-Saint-Léger, where the Eiffel Tower can be seen in “the far distance, a little upright prick on the horizon”, or as he listens to the audio recordings of S., a refugee from Sri Lanka indefinitely stuck in an offshore prison facility by Australian customs on the remote Pacific Island of Manus.
S.’ reported predicament operates a further line of flight as parallels are made with the narrator’s grandfather’s time at Chi Hoa, and with other celebrated manuscripts about, or devised in, jail, from Gramsci to Mandela. Dao does not seek to hide the traces of these multiple transfers but instead questions his legitimacy upon visiting and inhabiting them through his writing, having never been incarcerated himself, albeit also hailing from a family of refugees. Thus, Dao’s novel is also a book about other books (yet another interpolation), besides dealing with family. His philosophical musings embrace the thoughts of Derrida, Levinas, or Arendt, but Dao is especially interested in phenomenology (i.e., an approach that concentrates on the study of consciousness and the objects of direct experience), perhaps because in so doing, he hopes to grasp the unfathomable trauma endured by jailed refugees or political dissidents lingering in limbo, or the shared atrocities of the Indochina and Vietnam Wars. Though we may wish to rank one atrocity above the other in a magnitude scale of suffering, pain can hardly be measured up. Eventually, it has little to do with issues of right or wrong, with political or ideological affiliations and leanings, harkening back instead to our being (all too) human as suggested in this exchange between the narrator and his Vietnamese Australian interviewer in Melbourne’s Footscray:
When we compared crimes – me, the 1945 famine caused, I said, by French and Japanese and American imperial policies, her, the kangaroo courts and summary executions of landlords and wealthy peasants and the socially unpopular during the mid-fifties land reforms in Communist DRV, me, the Agent Orange and the millions of tons of bombs dropped on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, her, the massacre at Huê during the Têt Offensive, me, Lieutenant William Calley and My Lai, her, the re-education camps and prisons like Chi Hoa where for years and years men and women, including my grandfather, rotted away (a mistake, that, to use the cliché about rotting – it made it so much easier for me not to hear, not to feel, the sting in her words) – when we compared crimes like that, we were really trying to interrupt the other’s nostos, their return home.
While indicative of a failure to commiserate with the Other, these interruptions (from the Latin inter ‘between’ + rumpere ‘to break’) are also the site and the expression of a reciprocal fêlure, thus marking the possibility of an exit breakthrough in the form of a pause or a cesura – a suspended truce of sorts for want of reaching a final truth, which would allow for redemption. A small victory still for a hugely promising debut novel and writer.
“This ‘transcendent’ new novel is a must-read for literary fiction fans.” Review of Anam, by André Dao. Penguin Books Australia, 12 May 2023.
Do, Tess. Review of Anam, by André Dao. The Conversation, 30 April 2023.
PAUL GIFFARD-FORET obtained his PhD from Monash University, Melbourne, on the subject of Southeast Asian Australian women’s writing. He lives in Paris, where he teaches English across various academic locations and carries out research on postcolonial literatures while being politically committed as an activist on the French far left.