by Brian Caswell and David Chiem
I read this story while on holiday. Its 100-odd pages took me barely half an afternoon and I was in tears at the end. My partner had fallen asleep, but I read on, through a blur of my own tears even as I felt myself manipulated by the over-wrought plot.
The story opens from an odd perspective: a woman, watching her son and his lover. It ends in the same fashion. The woman, we come quickly to realise, is a ghost who watches over her son. From this point, the story branches into the perspectives of her son – a young Viet-Australian man who has recently given up his law studies to pursue writing – and his lover, a young long time Australian woman who is studying art. The story tracks their romance, but predominantly it focuses on two themes: their interracial relationship and the relationship between Viet-Australian father and son. There is also an interesting, and somewhat unbelievable, sub-story concerning the past of the young woman.
There are some wonderful elements of truth (as I see it) in this novel: the pressures and guilt of a migrant life, the sadness of a lost homeland, the soaring joy and depth of young love, the sense of the Australian bush (Blue Mountains, New South Wales, in particular) and an internal battle between self-will and desire to please one parents. I was really moved by the evident guilt of the young Viet-Australian man. The predominant emotion to characterise how I feel towards my parents, is guilt: I feel that I am a constant disappointment to them even as I strive to lead my own life, within the parameters of their approval. I am less conflicted, angry and blindly rebellious as I was when I was a teenager, and they are more accepting of my choices as a grown person.
The Full Story of the story is a neat parable about a peasant and a king, unveiling individual layers of reasoning and complications in a full life to get to more and deeper elements. In some ways this parable (a very Vietnamese one, even if I say that with the caveat that 'Vietnamese' cannot be defined) reminded me of the Roman fable about the Twelve Tables. (Forgive me if I get this wrong – it comes from memory of long ago Ancient History classes). This story goes that a wise elder has twelve stone tables on which immutable laws have been engraved. The wise elder tries to sell the twelve tables to some patriarchs for one piece of gold. The patriarchs scoff at the wise elder and refuse to buy. The wise elder smashes three of the stone tables and then offers the remaining nine stone tables to the patriarchs, but this time for three pieces of gold. The patriarchs are incredulous: there are fewer immutable laws now, but they cost more?! Indeed, says the wise elder, their value has increased because they are all that remain of the original twelve. Of course, the patriarchs scoff again, and so it goes: the wise elder smashes a further three and increase the price by three times. Eventually, the wise elder has only three immutable laws left, and the price he now offers is one hundred pieces of gold. The patriarchs do not scoff. They buy.
So how is that Roman fable connected to the “very Vietnamese” (my words and my impression) full story of The Full Story? That story is about a peasant who has a very special horse and who refuses to sell it to the King. No matter how much the King offers, the peasant refuses. And unpleasant things occur for the peasant when he refuses the King, until the very last offer to buy the horse, which the good peasant refuses. He is rewarded for his uprightness in comparison to the other villagers, who have given their precious possessions to the King for various immediate rewards.
I have been deliberately vague in the retelling of the story – because naturally the parable is integral to The Full Story. It is probably a universal lesson, rather than a uniquely Vietnamese one, that the truly valuable things in our lives are not material or monetarily valuable, but I recall this being a strong element of my growing up: the lesson that family, honour and friendship was more important than material success and acquisition.