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Review: The Mountains Sing, by Nguyen Phan Qué Mai
Algonquin, 2020. 342 pp. $27

During the early 1970s, the waning years of American involvement in the Vietnam War, Tran Dieu Lan tells her granddaughter why their family lives now in Ha Noi, how they came to lose their prosperous farm, and about the several wars that have dispersed their family — they pray not permanently. It’s a mind-boggling story, full of senseless violence, courage, excruciating suffering, and an indomitable will not just to survive but to hope for better times. And even as Dieu Lan tells it, the Americans are still trying (in the inimitable phrase of General Curtis LeMay) to “bomb the Vietnamese back to the Stone Age,” while the Ha Noi government demands ever-increasing sacrifices and punishes defeatists.

The content of these stories provide the main reason to read The Mountains Sing. The Vietnam War, which I remember well from my teenage and young adult years, matters greatly to me, and I want to know more about “the other side.” To an extent, this novel fills that gap, so I recommend it despite its many flaws.

I don’t see a novel here, but a fictional memoir, if you will, based on the author’s family lore and anecdotes she collected. Nothing wrong with that, but there’s no unifying plot, just plot points, a bushel of them, about life under the French colonials, Japanese invaders during World War II, and the Ha Noi government, both in the 1950s and later. (Note an elision, the relative absence of Americans as aggressors, which I’ll get to in a minute.) It’s Vietnam’s painful history on display, and the occasional kindness or lenience provides a sharp contrast.

U.S. Army photographer Ronald L. Haeberle’s March 1968 photo of the My Lai massacre, in which American troops killed hundreds of civilians, prevented the army from hushing it up. Apparently, Haeberle had two cameras–one official, one personal–and this photo came from the latter (courtesy U.S. Army via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

The most memorable episode concerns the so-called Land Reform of 1955, presumably intended to root out “exploitive capitalists,” a euphemism that excuses terror, whose aftermath reverberates in agonizing ways. Another gripping section portrays traveling the Ho Chi Minh Trail, by which the north supplied its military effort in the south, and which I’ve seen in documentaries but never in fiction.

I also like the renderings of everyday life, ingenious, appalling, or both. You see the bicycle repairman who fixes flats using materials like toothpicks; you learn the types of roots, berries, and insects you have to forage when you’re on the run. I also like the many aphorisms that appear in dialogue, like, “One bite when starving equates one bundle when full,” or, “Perseverance grinds iron into needles.”

There’s a difference between story content and storytelling, though, and here’s where the novel falters. Qué Mai sets up plenty of emotional conflicts but has trouble deepening or staying with them. Sometimes her prose undermines her effort, as with transitions like this: “Those who killed him wanted to uproot and erase our family. I couldn’t let that happen.” Further, the Tran family and those who help them seem highly idealized. They all try to do the right thing; no grudge ever goes unreconciled; and despite a horrific war and limitless suffering, nobody holds onto hatred, especially not toward the most conspicuous perpetrators. Villains, meanwhile, are all bad.

However, the most curious way the author protects her characters involves the war itself. To no surprise, all the men are conscripted, but the narrative never shows them killing a single enemy soldier. One recruit witnesses an ambush of American GIs bathing, but he’s too sick with malaria to pull the trigger himself, and he feels only sympathy for the victims. Aside from the bombing raids; a parenthetical mention that American firepower killed three million Vietnamese; and a brief section about the defoliant Agent Orange, you’d barely know Americans ever fought in or injured Vietnam. South Vietnamese troops commit the only war crime presented as such.

This is the elision I referred to, which also seems to glide over the French colonial power before and after World War II. The Ha Noi government appears far worse than anyone else, but it’s rather strange to have characters openly prefer democracy over their own dictatorship, when the democratic government is the one dropping the bombs. If the narrative had dealt squarely with that contradiction, the novel might have had a chance to soar, but that grappling never happens. Instead, I’m left wondering whether the author wishes to whitewash her soldier characters from any killing they might have done; avoid offending American readers (whom I doubt would blame her for showing Vietnamese defending their country); or focus solely on the pity of war for all participants. Whatever the reason, soft-pedaling American evil while condemning all other kinds twists the narrative’s moral compass, when morality is the entire point.

Nevertheless, The Mountains Sing matters for its content, and if you’re at all curious about Vietnam, I suggest you read it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from bookshop.org, an online retailer that splits its receipts with independent bookstores.