|Aug/Sep 1998 Book Reviews|
Robert Olen Butler
Random House, 1998 226pp
Robert Olen Butler may well be one of those people who can achieve six impossible things before breakfast. But I suspect that, for him, the process is longer and more painstaking. Certainly, in The Deep Green Sea he achieves several things I had come to believe might no longer be possible, but he does it in so gentle and beguiling a manner that I was charmed, rather than amazed.
Here, then, is a love story, a Vietnam War-veteran's story, a story of political change and war and continuing tragedy, and a tale told in chapters which alternate between the active inner voices of a man and a woman. Yet, it is gentle, erotic, fresh and beautiful.
Butler's Vietnam veteran, Ben, is an ordinary man, not noticeably traumatised by war, but with his share of ordinary problems. He reminds me of e.e.cummings's hero, Sam: "rain or hail/ sam done / the best he kin / till they digged his hole / :sam was a man /". What makes Ben's life different is his meeting with Tien and the events which unfold from this.
Tien, too, has a life which must be similar to that of many young women of her generation. She is a woman of the new, socialist Vietnam - strong, independent and self-aware. Well-learned slogans slip out at odd moments of inattention: "These words come out of my mouth. I do not know where they are from". But the old Vietnam, its ancient stories, beliefs and customs, is still deep in her blood.
Tien says prayers and burns incense for the soul of her dead father. And she is haunted by a myth which takes on new meanings as Butler weaves it into his story:
"... my friend whispered this story to me and a stripe of light lay on her face through the cords of the roots in the banyan and she said that the fairy princess and the dragon fell in love and they married and then she laid a hundred eggs in a beautiful silk bag."
This is the story of Vietnam: a story of a strange liaison and of fatherless children. For the eggs became people - the people of Vietnam - and the dragon flew away, back to his palace beneath the South China Sea.
To some extent, too, this is the story of Tien, daughter of a Vietnamese mother and an American father. And the question, as events unfold in The Deep Green Sea, is whether it is to be the story of Ben and Tien.
The story is a simple one, born of a complex situation, but simply told. And one of Butler's great skills in this book is the way in which he presents the dilemma and the seemingly inevitable outcome, and yet holds the reader's interest to the end. Only occasionally did Tien's thoughts jar, and Ben, at times, seemed a little too naive for a man of his age and experience. But given the sustained, simple, elegance of Butler's prose such judgements hardly seemed to matter. This is a beautifully achieved book for all those cynics who, like me, thought that romance in modern literature was dead.