Flesh by Khanh Ha
Black Heron Press
2012, ISBN 978-0-930773-88-5.
Khanh Ha is tender with his characters, spares nothing, but never judges. His narrator and protaganist, Tai, is an adolescent boy from a small village located not far from the city of Hanoi. Though the protagonist is young, this is not a young adult novel. Flesh is essentially a love story imbued with urgency and atonement and suffused with a dreamlike quality.
Tai is marked most visibly by two things, the execution of his father and smallpox, which nearly killed him. By the end of the 19th century when this story is set, smallpox could be forestalled by a vaccine, which under French occupation, was given to Catholic villages and withheld from the others. Tai’s village is not Catholic and he and his younger brother become deathly ill. The little one succumbs and is buried near their bandit father’s headless body in the swampy backyard of their hut. Life is tenuous here, death is always close by, is perhaps the one thing easy to believe in, “Like Mr. Cao Lai, I believed in death itself, not in its symbol.”
The thread of Flesh dangles from the need for an appropriate burial site for Tai’s father and little brother. It is why he travels to Hanoi to enter the service of a geomancer (a master of Feng Shui who locates burial sites among other things). In his possession are his father’s knife and something of his father’s temperament. These two elements will have great impact on the course of his life. Tai is eventually indentured to a man who owns a most auspicious site and has agreed to give it to Tai and his mother in exchange for Tai’s service. By now Tai is seventeen. He serves Mr. Cao Lai assiduously and attends him on trips to the Chinese Quarter where Mr. Cao Lai frequents opium dens.
We do not directly know what Tai feels about opium use or commerce, but his eye falls on certain things. He sees the poorest addicts who buy dregs gleaned from the pipes of those addicts who can afford to smoke in the opium dens. He sees a French horseman protecting the legal trade against this pathetic incursion.
The French horseman and a particular Catholic priest are the only overt references to the French occupation. Vietnam and her people have endured many occupations, have had long periods of self-rule, and their civilization is one of the oldest of all. According to archeologists, this part of Southeast Asia has been a continuous civilisation for more than 20,000 years. What is the fleeting moment of French occupation within that context?
As someone who grew up in the sixties, I certainly know that the information I was given about Vietnam by my high school Modern Problems teacher was so limited as to be useless for understanding anything about the country or its people. I’m also completely aware that having read one book by a Vietnamese author does not mean I am suddenly an expert. Nevertheless, Flesh is a marvelous introduction to this ancient culture, a small open window. To come and stand by this window, to look out on Khanh Ha’s landscape, see the river’s edge where
“. . . sampans and junks and small steam ships dotted the water’s edge, and the quay lay trembling in the yellowy light of the lanterns. On the gangplank, the coolies stood naked above the waist. Some sat slumped against the rail and some lay like corpses on top of coiled ropes. . .”
is to taste something new and wonderous.