|Download PDF of this full issue: v50n2.pdf (24.8 MB)|
The Eaves of Heaven, A Life in Three Wars
By Alan Batten (reviewer)
The Eaves of Heaven, A Life in Three Wars
by Andrew X. Pham
(Harmony Books, 2008)
This is the third of Andrew X. Pham's excellent books dealing with various aspects of Vietnam and how the Vietnam war (the American War) has affected the people in both countries. Pham is a highly perceptive author who never fails to reveal key insights to the subjects he tackles. He left Vietnam as a 9-year old when his family became "boat people," escaping from Vietnam in 1976 a year after the fall of Saigon. His first book, Catfish and Mandala (published in 1999), describes the terrors of that escape and his family's subsequent lives as refugees in Indonesia and eventually the United States. As a young man he returns to Vietnam and travels the length of the country by bicycle, visiting aunts, uncles and cousins along the way. In his discerning and sensitive way he reveals many insights to the Vietnamese and American characters, and how the war has left a continuing legacy for both of us.
Pham is also the translator of Dang Thuy Tram's diary Last Night I Dreamed of Peace. Dang was a doctor from Ha Noi assigned to a Viet Cong Unit near Quang Ngai. She unfortunately ran into a US patrol and was killed by a bullet through her forehead. Her diary (or half of it at least), in tiny meticulous handwriting filling the pages of a tiny notebook, survived through a series of unlikely coincidences. One young American lieutenant whose hands it passed through promptly fell in love with her. You will too. As a young university student she fretted that she may have been too bourgeois, reminding me of conversations I also had in college. Sometimes I think the medical people on both sides, patching their soldiers up only to have them come back with even more grievous wounds a few weeks later, hated their respective enemies even more than the soldiers themselves did. Dang's diary should be read back to back with Lynda Van Devanter's haunting memoir Home Before Morning.
The Eaves of Heaven is a series of vignettes from the life of Andrew Pham's father (Pham Van Thong) in Vietnam from the late 1930's through the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saigon in 1975. In a preface Andrew Pham explains that his book is neither memoir or biography of his father; he has merely lent his (Andrew's) words to his father's life stories. The senior Pham grew up as part of a wealthy extended family living on an estate a few miles outside of Hanoi. In the semi-feudal society of pre-WWII Vietnam even the rich worked hard and had few luxuries, but everyone, rich and poor, had shelter and enough to eat. The wealthy took a certain amount of responsibility for the poor, and society was held together by the centuries-old flow-chart of authority and responsibility developed by Confucius 2500 years earlier. Thong had an idyllic childhood, but that was soon shattered when the Japanese took over at the beginning of World War II. Among other forms of cruelty the Japanese requisitioned huge amounts of rice to feed their armies resulting in mass starvation and the breakdown of society among the Vietnamese.
After the Japanese were defeated, Nationalists, Communists and other political groups vied for power, committing atrocities on each other in the process. One of Thong's cousins, a handsome articulate young man active with the Nationalists, was assassinated by the Communists early on in the struggle. Other members of his extended family were killed by Communists in seemingly random acts of violence. The American decision to help the French regain their colony in Indochina added another layer of cruelty. In particular, a sadistic Algerian in the French army committed outrageous atrocities. Thong's highly educated father was kidnapped by the French and forced to serve for years as interpreter, porter and whatever other demeaning task came to mind without his family having any idea of what had happened to him. While Thong's father was thus captive, Thong's mother died giving birth to his youngest brother. Thong himself tried to avoid affiliation with all the political groups vying for power and concentrated on his education. I was surprised to learn that at one point in his youth he and his friends were hanging out in Hanoi cafes listening to Johnny Mathis.
After the French are finally defeated the family becomes refugees in Saigon. Thong eventually becomes a high school teacher, falls in love, gets married and has children. Then he gets drafted into the ARVN. He comments on the corruption and incompetence of the South Vietnamese government and upper levels of the military command, but also comments on the courage and integrity of many NCO's and low-level officers in the field. He narrowly escapes getting killed in an ambush. After the fall of Saigon he is put in a "reeducation camp" in which he almost dies of malnutrition and disease. Prison becomes a powerful confirmation that "absolute power corrupts absolutely, regardless of race or political ideology." He is eventually released due to the subtle influence of one of his wife's relatives who holds a high position in the Communist Party. We are left to conclude that this man decided that Thong was worth saving because of a quote from Voltaire taped to Thong's desk at home: "The comfort of the rich rests upon an abundance of the poor." The book ends here, more or less where Catfish and Mandala starts. Mixed in with all the violence and tragedy are moments of joy, kindness and compassion—people helping one another in times of extreme duress.
This is a valuable book for anyone wanting to better understand life in Vietnam from World War II through the French and American occupations. It provides insight into the delicate choreography of trying to make a living without running afoul of the disparate forces active in the countryside, and the joys and sorrows, small and large, along the way. Pham Van Thong's life demonstrates the outstanding courage and perseverance required to navigate the pitfalls characterizing life in Vietnam during the three wars of the late 20th Century.
Alan Batten was with the 34th Engineering Battalion at Phu Loi in 1968-69.