The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars

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9780307381200: The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars
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From Andrew X. Pham, the award-winning author of Catfish and Mandala, a son’s searing memoir of his Vietnamese father’s experiences over the course of three wars.

The Philadelphia Inquirer hailed Andrew Pham’s debut, Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam, for evoking “the full sadness of the human condition . . . marveling at spiritual resilience amid irreconcilable facts.” The New York Times Book Review called it, simply, “remarkable.” Now, in The Eaves of Heaven, Pham gives voice to his father’s unique experience in an unforgettable story of war and remembrance.

Once wealthy landowners, Thong Van Pham’s family was shattered by the tumultuous events of the twentieth century: the festering French occupation of Indochina, the Japanese invasion during World War II, and the Vietnam War.

Told in dazzling chapters that alternate between events in the past and those closer to the present, The Eaves of Heaven brilliantly re-creates the trials of everyday life in Vietnam as endured by one man, from the fall of Hanoi and the collapse of French colonialism to the frenzied evacuation of Saigon. Pham offers a rare portal into a lost world as he chronicles Thong Van Pham’s heartbreaks, triumphs, and bizarre reversals of fortune, whether as a South Vietnamese soldier pinned down by enemy fire, a prisoner of the North Vietnamese under brutal interrogation, or a refugee desperately trying to escape Vietnam after the last American helicopter has abandoned Saigon. This is the story of a man caught in the maelstrom of twentieth-century politics, a gripping memoir told with the urgency of a wartime dispatch by a writer of surpassing talent.

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About the Author:

ANDREW X. PHAM is the author of the memoir Catfish and Mandala (winner of the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Award) and the translator of Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram, published by Harmony in September 2007. He is the recipient of a Whiting Award and lives in Hawaii.

www.AndrewXPham.com

From The Washington Post:

Reviewed by Martha Sherrill

In 1802, a war hero named Hao Pham was awarded a vast tract of land in the fertile flatlands in the north of Vietnam. He'd won several battles that had led to the unification of his country. For this, he became the lord of a large manor with thousands of peasants and lived out his days in supreme comfort. A string of male descendants succeeded him, each becoming richer and more powerful than the last. Under French colonial rule, the Pham estates expanded further.

The Eaves of Heaven describes the gradual undoing of this vast and elaborate dynasty, the cataclysmic disintegration of a country, and the series of dramatic misfortunes that befell the great-great-great-grandson of Hao. Poised to inherit everything, Thong Pham instead lost it all, as Andrew X. Pham, his son, recounts in this gorgeously written book. But this is not ultimately a story of loss and upheaval, nor is it simply a retelling of Vietnam's war-torn history from a Vietnamese point of view. Many other books have ably covered that ground. The Eaves of Heaven is something entirely new: an effort to recapture the moments of beauty and transcendence that emerged from these events.

Andrew Pham covered some of this ground previously in his acclaimed travel memoir, Catfish and Mandala, but in telling the life story of his own father, he seems to have risen to a new level of quiet and powerful storytelling. Aware that his father's story, which he tells in his father's voice, is strong enough to require no enhancements, he is restrained, never sensationalizing.

The Eaves of Heaven is built from a series of short vignettes -- some sweet, some horrifying -- which are not recounted in chronological sequence, but linked in a narrative that darts nimbly across time, lingering on haunting scenes of brutality and violence as well as of beauty and love. Around every corner there are startling discoveries and juxtapositions caused by the shuffled chronology: misery followed by a gentle love scene or sumptuously described food. (Andrew Pham once was a food critic, and his book can be painful to read if, like me, you don't live within driving distance of a good Vietnamese restaurant.)

It's the absence of chronology that gives Thong's story its magic and depth, and allows it to be sustained by his observations of the ephemeral and the descriptions of unforgettable characters. Colorful personalities appear -- cousins, aunties, half-siblings, stepmothers, neighbors -- and reappear, sometimes to perish or be executed, victims of the crushing internecine and geopolitical conflicts that Vietnam endured for decades. The country becomes a character, too, like a person being slowly tortured and dismembered. When we encounter the orphan boy that the 9-year-old Thong and his cousin found in a barn during the Great Famine of 1944, it's impossible not to think of him as a kind of human stand-in for Vietnam itself:

"One afternoon, when Tan and I were playing hide-and-seek, we found a boy bundled in a blanket beneath a pile of hay at the back corner of the barn. Shriveled and bloated with starvation, he looked like some sort of bug, all head and belly, big-eyed and heaving ribs, almost hairless, semi-conscious and possibly mute. He was past talking. It appeared he had crawled into the stable to die."

The following year, there were so many dying people on the roadsides of the family estate that decaying body parts became a common sight and were transformed into macabre playthings.

"I remembered kicking a skull. There were many. My friends and I picked one that was detached from a body. It was round enough to roll like the grapefruits we once used. Bouncing across the dirt, it had no human feature. Ravens had picked the eye sockets clean."

Deprivation and suffering finally trickled up to the aristocrats, causing Thong and his family to walk away from their ancestral homeland, taking only one suitcase each, after the Vietnamese communists had been given the northern half of the country by the Geneva Accords in 1954. In the South, living on the bleak outskirts of Saigon, the Phams were reduced to desperation, first running a dark and greasy noodle shop that failed, then a country inn that became a popular whorehouse. Thong's father, once a dashing playboy with fine clothes and a nobleman's languid manner, degenerated into a hopeless opium addict who never managed to rise from his lounge or emerge from his haze.

A bookish and unathletic boy who felt awkward next to his polished, debauched father, Thong found comfort in the classroom and dreamed of being a scholar and teacher. His mother encouraged him, and together they buried a champagne bottle in her private garden on the estate in the north -- to be opened upon his passing of middle school graduation exams.

Thong's mother is the nourishing spirit of the book, a refined woman who left behind a treasure of good feeling and noble ideas to help carry her son through. Just 31 when she died, she hovered over his life for years after, a kind of angel who guided Thong and kept him alive.

"Mother had taught me that the eaves of heaven had a way of turning in cycles, of dealing both blows and recompenses. For every devastating flood, there followed a bountiful crop. For every long stretch of flawless days, there waited a mighty storm just below the horizon."

By the story's end, Thong has witnessed cruelty, waste and government corruption, and has endured prison, torture, and the deaths and humiliations of one friend after another. All he has left are the things inside him: the books he's read, the memories of the people he loves and hopes to see again, the strength and wisdom he's gained from deprivation. He has lost everything, and yet so much remains.


Copyright 2008, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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