Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s novel is a magnificent gift to all of us, but maybe most of all a gift to her own people, celebrating their indomitable spirit.
It is a rare experience to see high expectations being surpassed by reality, but this is what happened during my page turning sit-down this weekend with Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s novel The Mountains Sing.
For months, my copy has been on the road through COVID era travel restrictions from the US to Denmark, finally to be hand carried by a friend on a diplomatic flight to Hanoi. While waiting, my expectations were fueled by a continues stream of praises by readers around the world on twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
As I sat down in my sofa overlooking Hanoi’s Red River, I was soon catapulted by a time machine straight into the terror of that morning in 1972, when another wave of the infamous US bombings hit Hanoi.
As the sirens scream all over the city, a 12-year old girl, Hương is running for her life with her grandmother to find a vacant shelter – in one of the concrete enforced manholes that had been dug all over Hanoi. Shelter after shelter is already full.
At the very last moment they find a vacant shelter in front of Hương’s school, only to be half drowned in cascades of sewage water, dust and stones.
After the sirens had signaled it was safe, Grandma and I emerged, shivering thin leaves. We staggered out to the street. Several buildings had collapsed, their rubble spilling onto our path. We crawled out of piles of debris, coughing. Billowing smoke and twirling dust burned my eyes.
I clutched Grandma’s hand, watching women kneeling and howling next to dead bodies, whose faces had been concealed by tattered straw mats. The legs of those bodies were jutting towards us. Legs that were mangled, covered with blood. One small leg had a pink shoe dangling. The dead girl could have been my age.
Hương and Grandma Diệu Lan play the main roles in Quế Mai’s universe along with three generations of characters in the Trần family, who hails from the northern-central province of Nghệ An. The family is doing well as farmers in the fertile land, until disasters start looming in the horizon, one after another.
As Grandma Diệu Lan and Hương slowly puts some kind of basic existence together in Hanoi’s ruins, Grandma shares the family history with her granddaughter, always calling her Guava instead of her real name to escape the attention of evil spirits, just like her own father always called her Kitten to guard her during her childhood in Nghệ An.
At first, the tales of Grandma’s childhood are as beautiful and captivating as Vietnamese spring itself in the countryside, where the Trần family enjoys more prosperity and fortune than most. Grandma’s life is shattered by a horrific act committed by Japanese soldiers who occupied Vietnam during World War II.
She lost a family member and during the three-day funeral rites, the wailings sounds of her brother’s traditional string instrument, the đàn nhị hang in the air for hours and hours.
Công did not utter a single word during the entire funeral, but when he returned home, he stood in the front yard, the đàn nhị raised high above is head. His scream tore into the night as he shattered the instrument onto the brick floor. His wife, Trinh, and Mrs. Tú gathered the broken pieces, trying to put them back together, but he would never play again.
The next disaster is the great famine descending on Vietnam in 1944, with hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese succumbing to starvation. Nghệ An is among the hardest hit provinces in northern Vietnam.
Grandma tells Guava, how a sound woke her up one night.
It was the faint cries of your mother. A five-year-old then, Ngọc was resting her head on my stomach. Next to her, your uncle Đạt, barely four, lay silent. Your uncle Minh called me. I slowly turned and gazed at him: A hollowed face, dark rings around sunken, yellowish eyes; he was a seven-year-old skeleton.
Less than a decade later, in 1955, the surviving Trần family members are victimized by the so called ‘Land Reform’, essentially a witch hunt targeting farmers, who have managed to recreate some wealth after the famine years.
The cruelties of the land reform leave Dieu Lan with a silent contempt. She finds her own ways to survive, leaving her job as a teacher to become an illegal trader in the streets of Hanoi. Her decision leads to a bitter conflict with her youngest son Sáng.
Coping with the casualties
The casualties of war take a heavy toll on the Trần family. Some family members return from the war, injured or deeply traumatised, some don’t. One has a baby heavily deformed because of his exposure to Agent Orange, the dioxin contaminated chemicals, used by the US forces to defoliate the jungles in Vietnam.
The Mountains Sing is named after the Sơn ca, the little bird known for its beautiful singing in the forests of northern Vietnam. Guava’s/Hương’s dearest treasure is a wooden Sơn Ca, cut for her by her father in the war zone and brought back to Hanoi by a fellow soldier.
Maybe the Sơn ca also is there to make us understand that Quế Mai’s novel is more a message of the triumph of the human spirit than misery.
At the end, The Mountains Sing invites us to the annual prayer ceremony on the day of Grandma’s peaceful departure from Earth. Guava/Hương is burning a copy of her manuscript with Grandma’s tales, knowing that the smoke will transfer her words to Grandma in Heaven.
Wisps of smoke curls upward. And in the twirling ash, I see the Sơn ca moving. It is flapping its wings, craning its neck, calling my Grandma’s songs towards Heaven.
Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s novel is a magnificent gift to all of us, but maybe most of all a gift to her own people, celebrating their indomitable spirit. I hope to see the day, when the peoples of Nghệ An and elsewhere in this country will be able to read along with the world beyond Vietnam.