Every war is a tragedy for both sides – even good wars, when you can find them. That’s hardly a novel observation. What’s also true, if less observed, is that every war is also avoidable. Even the necessary wars. The difference between a tragedy and a natural disaster is that a tragedy could always have been avoided, which you never quite forget even as the origins of your current hell seem ever dim and more distant.
Marcelino Truong’s Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 spans the length of America’s official involvement in Vietnam. Because Truong was himself only six years old at the start of this period he’s no kind of political actor whatsoever. The previous volume, Such A Lovely Little War, covered the period of 1961-63 and Truong’s very young childhood in Vietnam on the eve of the escalation. The present volume begins with the Truong family – Vietnamese diplomat father, French mother, and four robust children – landed in London. It’s drab and rainy all the time but Dr. Who is on the tellie and the Beatles are just around the corner. And those things are important to six-year-old Marco, so they’re important to the book in their turn.
There’s a tension here that the book never adequately resolves. The main dramatic tension of the book naturally arises from the author’s proximity to the Vietnam War, but the war itself takes place at a remove of half a world away. This means the narrative is split into two streams, that of the actual memoir and the historical montage that explains the context of the author’s life. The two threads are twinned but the book itself acknowledge as time goes on that Truong’s cultural understanding of his father’s home is poor and fading. The lack of political engagement on Truong’s part becomes a theme, as he is naturally unable to participate in an anti-war movement his family believed to be inherently misguided.
It’s a fairly tried and true formula as far as these kinds of books go. History is a graphic thing, after all. Being able to see things like haircuts and Beatle boots, or a propaganda poster of Chairman Mao or an issue of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers means it’s not particularly hard to draw a direct juxtaposition from the author’s rather impressive scrutiny of the various kinds of fashion archetypes of the French boarding school scene and the absolute havoc unfolding in Vietnam during the final days of the American presence. You can see, side by side – here’s some very nice clothes on attractive French women, here’s a man being shot dead in the street. There you are.
Every memoir elides as much as it reveals. It’s a form where any imposition of narrative really is just that: an imposition. Similarly, things like wars and battles don’t have discrete beginnings and endings. The truth is always so much messier, and so it is with Vietnam. The United States didn’t start that war – we inherited it from the French. It didn’t end when the last helicopters lifted off from the embassy rooftop. The South Vietnamese didn’t surrender when the American’s left.
The suspense in the book’s early chapters is a kind of false suspense imparted by hindsight. Every political maneuver inside Vietnam up until the Gulf of Tonkin incident is greeted not with hope but avid, queasy interest. The South Vietnamese government struggled throughout the period to assert legitimacy. The Truongs watch from a distance as their country’s politics begin to resemble, in the Elder Truong’s words, “some Latin American banana republic.”
In comparison to the fateful rumblings of distant war, Truong’s childhood was fairly quiet – but not completely. The book begins with Truong’s mother having a vivid and grisly dream about the Liberation of France in 1944. There’s no real respite from war even from the remove of another continent. The elder Truong leaves the diplomatic corps to avoid having to move his family back to a country then possibly on the brink of major escalation. Even as the home of their early childhood grows more distant – within very little time, Marco, notes, his little Vietnamese is forgotten – the war keeps the country in their thoughts, to put it mildly.
There’s no real resolution to a lot of this, as with life, at least within the context of this volume. Truong’s mother’s bipolar disorder is another cloud that hovers at times, erupting into volcanic fights. And as the book wears on you can see the strain of the war reflected in these excruciatingly intimate family stresses. Although it’s the elder Truong’s homeland at war during the events of this book, the book also begins with a reminder that continent-wide disaster is only half-a-generation in the past for their mother. She’s been adrift in a succession of foreign countries for much of her life. But her husband is also an exile, and a rather more permanent one given the sinking realization that, as the war ground on for a hard decade and finally resolved itself in the most calamitous manner, he would likely never be able to go home again.
Although I’m sure someone with more of an ideological stake in the conflict could find fault, Saigon Calling appears to be a relatively even-handed look at a dreadfully familiar dynamic: just because the North was the enemy of the United States did not make them automatically good, and likewise the South wasn’t automatically bad just because the top tiers of the government were rotten. Truong takes great care to illustrate the ways in which those categories of “good” and “bad” weren’t really legible to anyone in the West at the time, so blinkered by their opposition to America’s brutality that they couldn’t see that it wasn’t really the Americans’ war to win or lose. (It’s still not a subject at which Americans are all that strong, to be completely frank!)
It’s not an obscure story and the fault lines are familiar. The main character, because he’s barely eighteen by the end of the book, isn’t really able to articulate any kind of political argument other than those he receives from his father. He describes his father as an even-handed and scrupulously fair individual, a serious career professional in the foreign service. He had to watch a very complicated conflict in his homeland be misunderstood and warped and inflated by the designs of men of bad faith half a world away. Sometimes there’s no good side in a war.
Truong draws extraordinarily well. The problem with Truong’s art, inasmuch as it presents more of a problem for the critic than the reader, is that the art is really rather good without ever really drawing (pardon the pun) inappropriate attention to itself. It’s a sober book soberly drawn. Even during lighter sequences of boarding school dances and trips to the movie theater he never breaks character. There is something almost disconcerting about cartooning as consistently lovely as this. He doesn’t lay down a bum line in the whole book. That’s hardly a bad thing. He’s not a show-off, but he’s not particularly that novel a storyteller, either.
His facility with facial expression carries a great deal of the emotional weight in a book where half the emotional baggage is carried below decks. Truong is half-French, after all, he can’t just talk about things like emotions. How American.