The mountains sing, by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

When I first immerse into a book I am no longer I, but ego dissolves away into an eye, absorbed completely into the world of the story, remerging at the end with that snap of the spiritual umbilicus. I use birth imagery here in part because the emotions seem to be akin in a way; the joy that comes of an intensely immersive book whelms that painful separation and summary reintroduction of the I.

The Mountains Sing is just such an immersive book.

Covering four generations, weaving back and forth from the 1930s to the now, The Mountains Sing is a deeply felt, authentic immersion in the lives of ordinary people whose existence has been marked by invasion, occupation, and political upheaval.

 

Que Mai employs two narrators, grandmother and granddaughter, and setpieces during specific events in North Vietnam during the middle decades of the twentieth century. The first protagonist is grandmother Tran, born in 1920 into a well-to-do farming family of several generations’ standing. The second narrative voice is granddaughter Huang, roughly my own age, growing up during the period of the Vietnam-American War.

Que Mai states in material accompanying the advanced reading copy that this novel was her attempt to respond to Hollywood movies and novels written by Westerners “who continue to see her country only as a place of war and Vietnamese people as mostly silent extras who, when they do speak, appear simple, naïve, cruel, or opportunistic.”

While she set aside her childhood dreams of being a writer for a long time, in order to earn a living and support her family, Que Mai found the writer within “always listened to other people in secret, asked what they had gone through and memorized their stories. In my teenage years, I began to travel to the villages of my parents to talk to the elderly, to be able to imagine how life had been for my grandparents, who had either died or been killed. Gradually, thanks to my understanding of Vietnam’s painful past, my parents and their friends started to share with me the events of their lives. Unknown to me, I was carrying out my real-life research for THE MOUNTAINS SING.”

Qu? Mai employs her considerable skill as a poet to throw down the boundaries between past and present, between this world and that. Reading this novel now, as the world shares the uncertainty of the developing pandemic, was a deeply unsettling reminder of just how fragile our infrastructures are. She evokes, with sensory brilliance, life in the northern part of Vietnam before war, and then the new and horrible realities as a result of the social contract being utterly eviscerated.

The unusual structure, the fascinating shifts in mood, the vivid detail given to every character no matter how briefly seen, draw the reader directly into experience, much of it horrific, as a family is torn apart (Huang’s father a soldier, her mother a doctor, one uncle vanished, another killed in the Land Reform period in the mid 1950s, ten years before the ruptures of China’s Cultural Revolution) and then, painfully, slowly, reknits itself.

There is plenty of violence, but the focus is not “war novel.” It’s the story of a family, synecdoche for a nation as it tears itself apart and then works to reweave itself. Que Mai does not mire the reader in unending misery, though horror is present—the warm colors of the cover are a disturbing reminder of Agent Orange, whose effects are viscerally presented in these pages. She also takes the time to evoke the beauty of the countryside, the simple details of everyday life, the proverbs passed down the generations that enrich life.

Fiction can go places that a history or a biography cannot: the author presents the worst of human behavior, but also its best in demonstrating empathy, kindness, hope, and even forgiveness, told in fluid, vivid prose with passion and the resonance of verisimilitude.

This is one of those books that makes me think of Vergil when he said: Non canimus surdis, respondent omnia silvae, or Not to deaf ears I sing, for the woods echo my singing.

Especially these uneasy days, let us read—talk—celebrate the best of the human spirit striving against the worst of its sins, and come away from this novel resolving not to go there again.

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