One thing for sure about Anzac Day next week, is that the template will be the same as in previous years. There will be an outpouring of sentimentality about old soldiers long dead, there will be grainy footage of trench warfare, there will be quotations from musty diaries, there will be politicians laying wreaths, and there will be scenes of people weeping for ancestors they never knew.
And there will be scant media attention paid to the veterans of Vietnam who are still among us. If they get a mention, the tropes will be all about PTSD and not much else, unless it’s to resurrect memories of the controversy surrounding Australia’s involvement in Vietnam. It must be galling indeed for returned soldiers from that conflict to be, still, a bit of an afterthought in military commemorations.
(This is not a case for more, it is a case for reassessing the privileging of some at the expense of others. If you haven’t yet read James Brown’s Book, Anzac’s Long Shadow, the cost of our national obsession, I refer you to my review. IMO Brown’s book is essential reading for all Australians, whether interested in matters military or not).
I was against the war in Vietnam, but it is because our Vietnam veterans are treated shabbily that I am so pleased that Seeing the Elephant is such an excellent book. There are histories of the Vietnam War, but it is novels which speak up for the heart and soul of the individuals who were there. In Portland Jones’ debut novel, set in the highlands of Vietnam in 1962 as Australia’s involvement began, the story of Frank Stevens and his translator Minh will hold you transfixed until you turn the last page.
As I said when I posted a Sensational Snippet, the story is told in intersecting narratives. Minh, old and sick in Perth, W.A., resurrects memories he has suppressed since he fled the Communist victory in 1975. Now he recalls his village life in the Highlands, learning English from the newly arrived American missionaries, and the arrival of Frank, from the AATTV, the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam. (The AATTV comprised 30 officers, who may or may not have been there at the request of the corrupt Ngo Dinh Diem, leader of the government in South Vietnam). Frank is there to recruit and train the hill tribes as a defence against the Viet Cong, Vietnamese Communists from the south who are preparing the way for the North Vietnamese Army led by Ho Chi Minh. Frank’s narrative takes the form of letters home to his grandfather on the farm in WA, but his stories are also told by Minh, whose memories include the conversations that enriched their friendship from the start. Where Minh speaks in elegiac metaphor, Frank’s voice is that of a down-to-earth Aussie: pragmatic, keenly prescient, alert to the looming reality but not prepared to concede. He’s nobody’s fool.
It was when I read Janet Butler’s brilliant Kitty’s War (see my review) that I learned to ‘read’ the context of ‘letters home’ from the front. Frank’s letters are an intriguing mix of revelation and concealment, which gives them an unexpected authenticity. He tells his grandfather the anxieties that he conceals from Minh, describing his distrust of the CIA who control his operations, yet to shield his grandfather from the enormous risks he takes, he minimises the dangers of a potential rebellion as if it were a boys’ own adventure.
One of many strengths in the novel is the representation of Minh. Unfailingly polite as if conscious of ever being a visitor rather than at home in Australia, he articulates the gulf between the well-meaning complacency of those who have always been safe, and those who have experienced the loss of all they cherish. Dr Benson gently suggests that Minh might talk about the past with a psychologist, if his children aren’t interested.
‘You mean like paying someone to be your friend?’ I said.
He nodded, smiling. ‘I guess you could say that. Someone who will listen to you remember.’
I imagined Dr Benson’s memories as sea glass, edgeless, tumbled smooth – they would be warm and feel like skin to touch.
His sea would be translucent and a summer breeze would fill the sails. There would be no monsoon darkness for him, he would smell the bright sunlight, high up in his nostrils like something good to eat. He would drop anchor and watch the water change from turquoise to deep green as the afternoon shadows darkened the seabed, tasting salt on the breeze, feeling the thrum of a following sea beneath his bare feet on the way home. He would not cry and hold the boat until his hands cramped or struggle to breathe under the weight of the lightless night sky. He would remember the sweaty grit of beach sand on the car seat, the hum of lawnmowers on Sunday mornings, and the smell of clean bed sheets. The snug feel of a just-ironed shirt and the scent of jacaranda and freshly dug garden beds.
I wanted to tell him that memories are for people like him. I wanted to tell him that people like me forget. Until the forgetting is so big it becomes the most important part of ourselves. But I smiled again. On the bus ride home the pressure of the past was on the backs of my eyes like a migraine. (p. 6)
This is not reality, of course. The Dr Bensons of this world have their share of sharp-edged memories too, not least the harrowing sadness of losing patients to disease. But this imagined world of safety, security and predictability is what Minh once had, and has lost. His world where villagers did the same things in the same way, where his family had been for generations, where he was loved and where life had meaning.
There comes a point in this exquisite novel when the reader knows how things will be resolved, and reads on with a sense of melancholy. This does not detract from the novel, it enhances it even as one reads through heart-stopping scenes of great peril. The novel is titled Seeing the Elephant for a reason: it’s an American expression which means gaining experience of the world at great cost.
Seeing the Elephant was shortlisted for the T.A.G. Hungerford Award in 2014. It’s such a rewarding book, I fear that I may not have done it justice. I really would like a lot of people to read it…
P.S. There’s an interview with the author at the publisher’s website and there are book group notes too.
P.P.S. Penguin Books is about to release another element of untold story from Vietnam. Our Vietnam Nurses by author Annabel Brayley will be published in early May (and I will read and review it soon).
Author: Portland Jones
Title: Seeing the Elephant
Publisher: Margaret River Press, 2016
Review copy courtesy of Margaret River Press.