“The Mountains Sing” by Nguyen Han Que Mai

May 23rd, 2020  |  Published in May 2020

“The Mountains Sing”, by Nguyen Han Que Mai, is the first novel I’ve ever read about a Vietnamese family and its vicissitudes over four generations of war, reeducation, landgrabbing by peasants from the middle classes, the French and American wars. For the record, the American war is basically just a piece of this book, almost a sideline, which is told entirely from the points of view of this one indomitable Vietnamese family.  One captured American pilot is briefly seen by local Vietnamese after a bombing raid, but he’s only noted in passing.

The novel centers around one grandmother, who is raising her granddaughter in a small Vietnamese village in North Vietnam; both the girls’ parents are somewhere in the (American)war, their whereabouts unknown. Four of the grandmother’s sons are all caught up in the war, and the novel centers around two particular topics: the grandmother’s fierce strength in attempting to get her family  back together, and her own childhood, where she came from a comfortable land-owning family, and how her family loses its land, her father, her brother.  The two narratives flash back and forth, so the reader gets a sense of what constant warfare is like for this one family, multigenerationally. And it’s made clear that, for this family , anyone in it who may have fought with or for the South Vietnamese is as close to a traitor as can be. We are privy to the changing politics of North Vietnam, when it becomes a communist country, before the actual separation of North from South.  The grandmother, in trying to keep food on the table for her and her granddaughter, gives up her safe but poorly paid job as an elementary school teacher in favor of selling things on the local black market.  This section of the novel is particularly fascinating for the Western reader, as the grandmother is shunned by her village neighbors for doing so; her indifference to those around her is a function of what she’s survived herself as a child, including watching her own father be shot to death by Japanese soldiers in an earlier occupation of Vietnam; the family is driving (via cart) their crop to a larger city, when it’s stopped by vicious Japanese soldiers; the grandmother, as a girl, and her brother leap off the cart to safety while watching their father’s humiliation and death right before their eyes, while the soldiers steal their cart, their goods, their livelihood. (The Japanese are only the first in a series of invaders from afar who affect this family).

Over the course of the novel, the whereabouts of all of the grandmother’s sons, and eventually the granddaughter’s mother and father, are clarified, and, indeed, one of the sons has indeed become a South Vietnamese soldier; several of the recently returned sons and their mother (our grandmother) go to watch him die, while family secrets emerge on the deathbed; what may sound like melodrama is not; the grandmother is far too wise and has been through far too much (when she escapes her own house when peasants are sent to steal their goods, house, crops and land by the new “reeducation” campaign of North Vietnam, wherein land was to be appropriated by peasants, she literally leaves with the clothes on her back, several days of food, her five children; this distinguished family become instant beggars; along the way, she will have to park four of her five children with absolute strangers, as she cannot feed five children and find work for herself; this part of the novel’s narrative is particularly strong) to care anymore about who fought on which side and why.  The reader is continually educated about how historical forces and ideologies impact on this one family, who live through five politically induced life changes and/or foreign invasions in just their lifetime).

One of the strongest scenes in the novel is the return of the mother from the war; she is nearly catatonic; stays in bed; can’t/won’t eat or sleep. It becomes clear that, although has been a doctor all along, that, briefly captured by soldiers, she has been gang raped, become pregnant thus, and found an abortion through a Chinese herbalist; her reintegration into her own family is slow, and full of agony, and her reunion with her daughter strained and painful.

I go into some detail about the plot as I am certain that most Americans haven’t any idea what individual Vietnamese lived through in this series of debacles culminating in the American war; the Vietnamese are known for their stoicism and their entrepreneurial spirit; they are a tough people who’ve suffered abysmally at the hands of both outsiders (Japanese; French; American) and from the ideologies imposed by their own “leaders”, particularly in North Vietnam.  In this fascinating–and beautifully written–novel about the survival of this family, the reader can get a glimmer into what happened to these people over a fifty year period or so, and how the determination of this grandmother, herself a victim of war’s horrors and ravages, is determined to find her people and  keep them together. The grandmother is a fascinating, admirably rendered character, strong and long suffering but very much one who takes over: the novel is also a tribute to the women who are left behind in war, the women who feed the children, make the money to survive, and wait at home for their men to return, one of the most timeless themes in literature. It’s essential reading for Americans, who tend to know nothing of Vietnamese history and how and why they’ve become such tough people.

“The Mountains Sing” is a beautiful novel, never melodramatic, full of history’s pointless wars and ideologies; just as many of us haven’t read the novels of those Americans who fought in the war (Philip Caputo; Karl Marlantes; John del Vecchio, Denis Johnson, amongst others), few of us will have read about the Vietnamese, from their point of view, during the time of the American War, and this novel is going to be epiphanous for those who choose to read it.

–Daniel Brown

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