Did you hear about Mrs Binh?

Adam Mars-Jones

  • The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
    Corsair, 209 pp, £12.99, February 2017, ISBN 978 1 4721 5255 8

These eight stories, by the author of last year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathiser, are clear-eyed and effective, uniform in length, evenly pitched in tone. Viet Thanh Nguyen dedicates the book to ‘all refugees, everywhere’, but his focus is on those who came from Vietnam and settled in California. There are nuances of displacement, and in some ways the Vietnamese experience of exile was a special case. The traumatised state of those arriving in America found an echo in their host country, unused to defeat, still less defeat without honour.

The Refugees amounts to a composite portrait of a community at various stages of assimilation, and resistance to it. The narrator of the first story, ‘Black-Eyed Women’, has found a place for herself as a sort of entrepreneur of trauma, ghostwriting the stories of those involved in terrible events, such as the only survivor of a plane crash in which his family died along with all the others, or the father of the perpetrator of a high school massacre. The publishers want these stories rushed to market while they are still current, but loss has its own timeline, as the ghostwriter discovers when her brother, killed by pirates as the family was escaping from Vietnam, puts in an appearance a quarter of a century later. Her mother explains the delay in terms of the traditional lore about ghosts – he had to swim all the way – and it’s true he’s bloated and pale, his clothes soaked.

She remembers her brother telling her of other ghosts: ‘The upper half of a Korean lieutenant, launched by a mine into the branches of a rubber tree; a scalped black American floating in the creek not far from his downed helicopter, his eyes and the exposed half-moon of his brain glistening above the water; and a decapitated Japanese private groping through cassava shrubbery for his head.’ The brother himself is a tentative, gentle presence, not even much wanting to be remembered.

The narrator of ‘War Years’, by contrast, has no memories of the war, and finds Vietnamese identity a performance, almost a chore. He loves the classroom,

where, for seven hours every day, I spoke only English. I liked school, even summer school. It was like being on vacation from home, and at three o’clock, I was always a little disappointed to walk the four blocks to the grocery store my parents owned, the New Saigon Market, where English was hardly ever spoken and Vietnamese was loud.

He has imbibed his fears from the American tradition: memories of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ and the fear of meeting ‘someone undead’ propel him past his parents’ bedroom door to his own room, so that all he hears of a troubled late-night discussion is his mother saying: ‘I’ve dealt with worse than her.’

She’s talking about Mrs Hoa, who is collecting money for ‘the fight against the communists’, except that it’s 1983 and the communists have won. Supposedly the money will go to train guerrillas in the jungles of Thailand, but Mrs Hoa’s approach seems more like extortion with menaces, a protection racket wrapped in the flag of a country that no longer exists. ‘Did you hear about Mrs Binh?’ Mrs Hoa says. ‘People say she’s a communist sympathiser, and all because she’s too cheap to give anything. There’s even talk of boycotting her store.’ The New Saigon Market generates a livelihood but hardly a fortune: ‘People haggled endlessly with my mother over everything, beginning with the rock sugar, which I pretended was yellow kryptonite, and ending with the varieties of meat in the freezer, from pork chops and catfish with a glint of light in their eyes to shoestrings of chewy tripe and packets of chicken hearts, small and tender as button mushrooms.’

Life in a community of expatriates seems to combine the disadvantages of both city and village, and suspends the inhabitants somewhere between the past tense and the present. The cause for which Mrs Hoa collects doesn’t exist outside her fantasy, though the threat she presents is real enough. The narrator’s parents have adapted to America, but their previous life has taught them to hoard their assets, expecting ruin at any moment. They contribute to their church, wire funds to relatives in Vietnam and keep money in the bank. They also hide gold in the rice jar and jewellery in a fireproof safe hidden in the crawl space under the house. Fear of burglars persuades them to leave out tempting decoys, so that intruders will just grab and run – a conspicuous vase full of coins on a shelf near the front door, gold bracelets displayed on a dresser in the bedroom.

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