Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Nam Le's The boat

How should a bookgroup discuss a short story collection? Discuss each story in turn? Have each member comment on her favourite? Do a general free-for-all? This week eight Minervans met to discuss Nam Le’s highly lauded collection of seven short stories The boat. We haven’t discussed many short story collections over our long years of existence and so don't have a tried-and-true plan of attack. Our most recent one was Tim Winton’s The turning but it was quite a different book to discuss because of the strong links between the stories.

The group as a whole was bowled over by The boat. We were impressed by his versatility and most of us felt that the language and style were highly differentiated from story to story to suit the particular characters and setting of each. For example, the language and sentence structure of the first somewhat autobiographical story “Love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice” was quite different from that of the second story, “Cartagena”, set in Latin America. The narrative voice varies too from 1st to 3rd person, and from male to female points of view. Several stories though rely on a fairly familiar "present interspersed with flashback" narrative structure. An exception to this is the very different, and more obviously poetic, "Hiroshima".

Besides the language, Nam Le’s versatility is on display in the variety of his protagonists and settings. The subjects range from an 8 year old orphan girl in Hiroshima to a middle-aged painter in New York, from a 14 year old hitman in Colombia to a 35-year old American woman visiting Iran. Despite this diversity, though, we noticed that survival seemed to be a strong underlying theme in the stories. This is probably not surprising in a writer who came to Australia from Vietnam as a boat refugee.

In addition to discussing specific stories in some detail, we also discussed the story endings and their clarity or lack thereof! Some felt they were more oblique than they need be and would have liked a little more clarity. The story that was particularly referenced in this discussion was “Tehran calling”, with many of the group being unsure about what exactly happened, and some feeling that this detracted from it. Others were less concerned about the open-endedness...or perhaps felt they knew what happened! "Meeting Elise" was another whose ending generated some discussion about its intent.

An issue we didn’t discuss but one that I can’t resist raising is that of the autobiographical aspect of the first story. That story is so close to Nam Le’s own life that it is tempting to read it AS his life. A character says to the fictional Nam that “instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires, and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans – and New York painters with haemorrhoids”. One reviewer, Hari Kunzru in The Scotsman, wrote that “Sure enough, The Boat, contains all these stories, minus the lesbian vampires, who presumably got lost in the edit”. Does he know this for a fact? Did the real Nam Le write such a story or is it only the fictional one who did? Is this a case of life getting mixed up with art? In an interview on the ABC’s Bookshow Nam Le admits to a story about lesbians but says “the vampires I needed to leave some interpretive distance, I reckon”. I like to think of it as Nam Le’s little joke – but I may be wrong!

Now, any one else like to comment?

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