January 1, 2013 by markstani
Kim Thuy’s Ru – in French, a discharge of tears, blood or money; in Vietnamese, a lullaby – is a lovely, heartfelt little book that proves size that hardly matters: you can wisp through its series of mainly single-page vignettes in a handful of hours, but its beauty will linger much longer.
Thuy’s book essentially tells the story of her life from her birth at the time of Vietnam’s Tet Offensive in 1968, through a post-War childhood under increasingly strict communist control, and eventually her escape via Malaysia to a plentiful but emotionally bereft new life in Canada.
Thuy’s narrative style allows her to flit back and forth between generations and provides a stark contrast between her settled adulthood – with which at times she seems embarassed, almost guilty, and the pain she experienced in her youth. More than that, it brings powerful focus to her sense of displacement: for Thuy’s semi-biographical character, there is no tense worth considering but the present.
It is Thuy’s success in making ‘Ru’ less a book about war and more about the essence of belonging that makes it personal to us all. Her beautifully crafted mini-tales are sprinkled with chilli-spikes of recognition, in particular towards the end of the book, when her return to her homeland belatedly helps her narrative find rhythm and with it a really heightened impact.
There are some gut-wrenchingly good little portraits here: a six-year-old boy running across the rice paddy “with his childhood in his legs”, seconds before he was shot down by soldiers; the street girl selling grilled pork whose hair caught fire on her cooking stove, yet who stoically rejected the narrator’s impulsive, well-intentioned offer to help lift her out of her world.
Thuy draws a contrast between the old woman in the cone-shaped hat, her back hunched almost double as if she has carried the burden of her homeland’s troubles for too long, who slips to a desperate death on the floor of an outside shithouse, and the hour-rent girls whose future for whom she has toiled, who shiver nude in a brand new nightclub while businessmen ping rolled hundred dollar bills at their bodies with rubber-bands. Is this kind of future, Thuy implies, that Vietnam has suffered for?
I’ve often asked strangers who came to Asia to buy love on a one-time basis why, on the morning after a wild night, they insisted on sharing their meal with their Vietnamese or Thai mistress. The women would have preferred to receive the cost of those meals in cash, so they could buy a pair of shoes for their mother or a new mattress for their father, or to send their little brother for English lessons. Why desire their presence outside of bed when their vocabulary is limited to conversations that go on behind closed doors? They told me I didn’t understand a thing. They needed those young girls for a totally different reason – to restore their youth. When they looked at those young girls, they saw their own youth, filled with dreams and possibilities. The girls gave them something: the illusion that they hadn’t made a mess of their lives, or, at the very least, the strength and the urge to start over. Without them they felt disillusioned, sad. Sad at having never loved enough and having never been loved enough. Disillusioned because money hadn’t brought them happiness, except in countries where for five dollars they could obtain an hour of happiness, or at least some affection, company, attention. For five dollars they got a clumsily made-up girl who came for a coffee or a beer with them and roared with laughter because the man had just said the Vietnamese word urinate instead of pepper, two words differentiated only by an accent, a tone that is nearly imperceptible to the untrained ear. A single accent for a single moment of happiness.
If the power and pertinence of the final third of ‘Ru’ had been replicated in the first part of the book, I would have said it was pretty extraordinary. As it is, it takes Thuy a while to get into her stride. Nevertheless, ‘Ru’ is still a warm and thought-provoking work, even at just 153 sparsely populated pages. Maybe it’s the kind of book you wrap up and give to someone you love, as a reminder how lucky you are not to be afflicted by the horrors of history when it comes to affairs of the heart.