Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Scents of Memory

[Review by Paula Tohline Calhoun, entitled The Scents of Memory, November 17, 2012
[Review Source:]

I begin by saying that I do not know the correct way in which to refer to the esteemed author of “Flesh,” the first novel of Mr. Khanh Hà.   In some Asian nations,  on seeing this name one would refer to the gentleman as Mr. Khanh, as the family name is listed first and the given name second in those countries.  I noticed that in the dedication he includes the names Hà T. Khoa, and Hà T. Duy. Because of that, please accept my apologies, Mr. Khanh, if  I refer to you incorrectly from here on in.  It is meant respectfully.

The book opens with two epigraphs, one from Claude Farrère:  Yes, I am no longer a man, no longer a man at all.  But I have not yet become anything else.” The second from Mr. Arthur Rimbaud, which in light of the outcome of Mr. Khanh’s exquisite book is the perfect introduction, and one to which you will return when you have finished the last page of the book:

“When the world is reduced to a single dark wood for our four eyes’ astonishment a beach for two faithful children, a musical house for one pure sympathy – I shall find you.”

For the purposes of my review I add my own two epigraphs:

“I’ve found a different way to scent the air, already it’s a by-word for despair.”
~~Andrew Motion

“Perhaps the old monks were right when they tried to root love out; perhaps the poets are right when they try to water it.  It is a blood-red flower, with the color of sin; but there is always the scent of a god about it.”
~~Olive Schreiner

Flesh begins with a brief prologue by the storyteller, Tài, who gives a bit of background in his “twilight years.”  The twilight years are unknown, because not knowing how long our protagonist lives, we can only count up from the year 1896, where his real story begins when he was a boy.  It is hard to describe this book as a “coming of age” tale, because it is so much more. I would rather refer to it as a the story of a young man-boy who grows up in stature, but was born already “of age,” with an innate understanding that life is changeable, surprising, disappointing, and wonderful, all at once.

The story takes place in Annam – the earlier name of Viet Nam, in and around Hanoi. Tài lives with his mother and younger brother, blessed to live in a family that is bound not only by flesh but by love.  That union is all the more important and necessary because the story begins with the gruesome beheading of Tài’s father along with others of his father’s “gang” in full sight of Tài, his mother, and his little brother – as well as the families of the other victims and some assorted curious onlookers.  Beheading is the standard method of execution in Annam, and despite its likely swift and merciful end, it is nevertheless something difficult to witness.

There is much that we, as modern Americans, would consider unfathomably brutal in this story that Tài tells us, but the telling is not egregious nor overly graphic.  Reading this book made me aware of how little I know about so much of the world.  The world of Annam – just as the French Catholics are beginning to make inroads into the Annamese society, thereby dividing village against village – is one of which I regrettably have little knowledge.  As you read the book, one becomes aware of how much you want to know, and how much we are all alike, but for our geographical placement on the globe. A French Roman Catholic, Father Danton, a  fluent speaker of Annamese, is a prominent character near the beginning of the book.  He serves as a way of introducing the people of the villages he visits not only to his Catholic God, but to the ways of the foreign, western world.  He is quite a sympathetic character (on the whole), because he respects the people to whom he ministers, and does his best to help those he can. However, it is difficult to dispel the feeling that the devastating introduction of smallpox to the countries of East Asia must have had something to do with the invasion of the western world.  The fact that smallpox vaccine was available was little help, because at that time it was meted out by the French only to those villages who became Catholic.  I could find some sympathy for Father Danton in that he did not agree with the policy, but lost some when he would not work against his prevailing authority.

Both Tài and his brother fell victim to smallpox.  Tài survived, his brother did not.  During this time we are introduced to scents that are so much a part of this book.  Dead eels are placed under the cots of those suffering smallpox in hopes of warding the disease away.  The scent is almost unbearable, except the ones who love those who are suffering.

Before learning of his brother’s death, Tài takes it upon himself to look for the head of his father’s body, that it can be buried with the body they transported home after the beheading, and the body of his little brother, who have been buried in soggy, inauspicious ground behind their hut, unsuitable for a happy afterlife for them or their heirs.

On his journey Tài meets people of all sorts.  They are the same people who populate the entire world – the kind, those who would teach, those who love, those who lust, the self-centered and cruel, the modest and frightened, and those who would hoard riches as a way of living.  The French Government which licenses and rules the sale of liquor and opium, and encourage the profligate (and lucrative, for them) use of both, also plays a large part in this story.  The use of opium in the crowded opium dens brings out from the pages the smell of the smoke from the pipes – the smoke of the “quality” opium, with a sweet caramel odor, and the vomitous smell of the dregs of the opium, scraped from the pipes and sold to the poor addicts who can afford nothing else – which is sold illegally an punishable by death.

Tài has the wonderful pleasure of falling in love.  On his way to Hanoi, he is taken in by the beauty of a young woman who travels with him by boat on his way to Hanoi.  Once there, to work out his time of servitude in Hanoi, (to two different masters – one indifferent and sometimes cruel, the other benevolent) – a time spent paying for a suitable burial place for his father and brother, found by a geomancer – a “seer” of a type who can divine, through thorough search, places of burial that can change the fortunes of the heirs of the deceased buried in those places.  While indentured in Hanoi  he falls in love again.

The end of the novel brings a twist which gives the following words from the flyleaf of the book a very clear meaning: “The title, (Flesh), refers to temptation – the temptation of the flesh.  But it refers equally to the obligations of kinship, the connections between us and those to whom we are related, even if we would choose not to be.”

I close with two quotations – one from the first line of the chapter, “Moths to the Flame:”  I woke to the faint aroma of cinnamon that hung in the air.”  Other than illuminating Mr. Khanh’s use of scents as an integral part of his novel, this particular line would not be significant without the last sentence in the same chapter:  I could smell the river, the damp silty smell still clinging to my skin, and I could smell her.

How much of our memories, personal and collective, are stimulated by the scent of life around us.

It is my honor to have been able to review this book by Mr. Khanh Hà, the first book of his that I hope is one of many to come.  I cannot encourage you enough to read it, and savor all the morsels, and gather every scent that rise up from every page.

I could never say enough. . .

[Image Source: Rose Photograph by Paula Tohline Calhoun]

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Lesson Before Dying

This classic reminds me of Flowers for Algernon whose author taught me creative writing at Ohio University.

Ernest Gaines brings to light the perpetual racism in America in the late 1940s. He takes no sides. He portrays people as they are, much like the eye of a camera that sees and records. He gives us Grant Wiggins, the Creole who teaches black children in a small Cajun community, who is full of self-pity, self-hatred because of his race. Yet it is Wiggins who takes on the challenging task to counsel a young black man named Jefferson already on the death row for a murder he did not commit but was dragged into the scene against his will. His lawyer who defends him pleads to the jury to spare his life, the life of a 'hog'. That word hurts Jefferson's godmother deeply. She is the one who has labored all her life to bring him up, to send him to school, to see him break his back toiling in the cane field like the rest of the black children who grow up on the plantation. To love him only to hear them call him 'a hog' rather than a man tears her heart. So she asks Wiggins, the Creole teacher, to instill in Jefferson a notion that he is a man, not a hog.

Ernest Gains portrays Wiggins perfectly. In fact, he portrays every person he creates as real, as sympathetic, as interesting, and as formidably moving as a grand master of fiction would do. In the end, it is the hog that changes the man in Wiggins and not the other way around. Jefferson, who can't speak intelligently, can't write proper English (much like Charlie Gordon in Flowers for Algernon), gives every sign that he would crumble on the execution day. The teacher, the teacher's aunt, the godmother, the reverend, the young deputy, all stand in support of the condemned boy. Yet in the end, it is they who have to lean on one another for the moral support. And it is Jefferson who 'walks' to the chair and has his life taken away from him. In the end, he is not a hog, but a man transformed. By his own will.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Tread Softly Book Review of FLESH

"Fleshs beauty and strongest feature is Ha’s attention to the sensual nature of his setting. His writing brings the smells and sounds and minute details of Lau and Hanoi to life, whether he’s describing the putrid flesh of a decomposing eel used as an ancient weapon against smallpox or the layers of sights and odors found in an expensive opium den.

Reading Flesh is like stepping back in time and settling in as a fly on the wall of Tai’s life. Understated emotion and beautifully rendered details make the story a calm read, despite several instances of violence."--Tread Softly Book Review

Sunday, November 11, 2012

DDS Book Review of FLESH

"The best feature of this book is the author’s style of writing.There’s a certain charm in it that’s more at home with what we call ‘classics’ and hard to come by in modern literature. It is so expressive and touching all the while maintaining its charm."--DDS Book Review

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Trust Blog Review of FLESH

"I recall a book about a man trying to get home.  That was the essence of the entire story; well except for the fact he was walking home.  Since I read this book I've told many a fellow reader about this literary gem and, purposefully, given them this sparse description.  I've done this largely to gauge their reaction.  Almost universally the reaction was lukewarm at best.  Then I would elicit a promise to have them read the book.  Again, almost universally, when I saw them soon after they too had nothing but praise for the book, Cold Mountain by Charles Fraizer.

Flesh by Khanh Ha is this type of book."--Sean Keefer, author of  The Trust