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Book Review

Such A Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63 (2016)

Humor, canny recollections, and keen insight make Truong’s illustrated memoir of Vietnam a fascinating, if cordial, journey.

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Originally published in French as Une si jolie petite guerre back in 2012, Such A Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63 (with translation by David Homel) is the first of cartoonist Marcelino Truong’s illustrated memoirs, recounting a childhood across different cultures, countries, and war zones. The “little war” referenced could just as easily refer to the growing turbulence between his parents; for some children, the conflict experienced at home can seem just as frightening as any found elsewhere, even those raging in their own backyard.

While Truong paints his father Khanh, a diplomat for the Vietnamese government, as having the patience of a saint, most of his attention focuses on his poor mother, Yvette, a French housewife trying to make the best of mixed-cultures and political conflicts. Structurally, the story told here isn’t far removed from Riad Sattouf’s winning Arab of the Future series, only without much of that series’ dire pathos and stylized gore.

By sharing anecdotes and letters written home, Truong recounts the collapse of his mother’s American Dream, her panic attacks soon giving way to full-fledged emotional outbursts. With hindsight, we’re able to deduce Yvette suffered from bipolar disorder, no doubt exacerbated by uprooting her family from the relative safety of Washington, DC, to that of a rising war zone. In an era when mixed-race couples often faced impossible odds at home, the idea that one would voluntarily move to a country where Communists could potentially “massacre all the whites and mixed-race people” couldn’t have helped.

Still, Truong and his brothers, often mistaken for Chinese, Japanese, any type of -ese, really, made fast friends with local kids wherever they went. Comfortably settled in Washington, DC, his older sister, Mireille, Hula Hoop spinning on her waist, watches the boys play ‘war’, their favorite game. Truong’s juxtaposition here is obvious: a mere ten years, and different cultures, are all that separate these children from the real thing. It could be Cowboys and Indians, or The Korean War, coonskin cap or Spartan helmet; names mattered little just as long as simulated violence was on the menu. “Die, G.I.!”, shout the brothers to the invaders, who in turn scream back “Kill ‘em commie gooks!”

As young Marcelino and his uprooted family moved from nation to nation, eventually settling in the southern city of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Truong – the artist – does yeoman’s work to give context to the rising political anxiety and historical background facing Vietnam at the time. We also learn his father had direct access to the Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem, as his interpreter, on occupation that often puts the family on the front line of a rising conflict that will, ultimately, challenge them at every turn.

As one of the few works of his published in English, it’s refreshing to see how clean and direct Truong’s style is compared to many of his contemporaries; dark, thick inky lines that wouldn’t look out of place in a New Yorker comic collection. Even moments when he renders the cruel nature of conflict and propaganda are relatively bloodless, as are his reproductions of famous photographs from the era, most notably Malcolm Browne’s The Burning Monk and Nick Ut’s horrifying image of Phan Thi Kim Phuc.

Of the latter, Truong reminds us, the napalm that burned little Kim Phuc’s body was actually dropped by South Vietnamese forces, not American. Yet, the photo, for which Ut won a Pulitzer Prize, had an immediate and clear effect on the world’s opinion of American involvement in the region. The real details of what actually happened notwithstanding, it’s a stunning reminder of the power that pictures and images have in shaping social consciousness – and being exploited for propaganda purposes.

Coloring is sparse, used most effectively to make direct points or to best reflect the various locales the Truong family find themselves in. Gorgeous single and two-page murals often tell his story by themselves. I’d be amazed if Truong employs any digital magic to create his beautiful watercolor color swatches, but as the artist photograph on the back flap shows him at work on a lightbox I’ll assume it’s the real thing.

Perhaps it won’t gather as much attention as the literal parallels between real and domestic conflict, but Truong’s memoir also presents a fascinating look at the sexual politics of both the war and Vietnamese culture at the time.

Throughout, President Ngo Dinh Diem is presented as the more ‘effeminate’ of the warring factions, while the encroaching Communists, led by the enigmatic Ho Chi Minh, are clearly more masculine and virile. Diem, a “confirmed bachelor”, survived a failed assassination effort by two defectors, who may have acted out of ‘wounded male pride’, we’re told.

And then there’s Trần Lệ Xuân, aka Madam Nhu, wife of Ngô Đình Nhu, Diem’s younger brother and political advisor, whom Truong portrays as the South’s most forceful and aggressive agent, earning her nickname The Dragon Lady. Nhu organizes a woman’s battalion, called The Sisters of the Republic, which Truong hints may have inspired, both politically and fashionably, a future episode of Star Trek (titled “A Curious Little War”).

Nhu embodies the thoroughly modern Vietnamese woman, emancipated from male domination – and free to defend her country. She attempts to motivate both citizens and army of her country by any means necessary. It’s thought the patriotic story of the Trưng Sisters, who helped defeat Chinese forces in 40 AD, is appropriated by Nhu and her daughter Lệ Thủy in the creation of a propaganda sculpture and state-issued stamps. I’m not suggesting this book be required text in Feminism 101…but I’m not suggesting it shouldn’t, either.

True, many of the text-heavy pages read more like the internet-aided research they are, and less the honest recollections (however faulty) of the artist as a boy. For many Americans, the story of the Vietnam War – so much more than a mere conflict – has finally begun its inevitable cycle where it’s socially permissible to discuss, without the restrictions of misguided patriotism. So much of the period’s history has been written by – and for – polemics with ideological axes to grind (so often the case these days) that it’s become difficult to honestly criticize a work like this.

No doubt, some may chide Truong for not passing more judgement, for not going far enough with ‘laying the blame’ of events which helped shape such a critical time in his childhood. True, the material here is history, but a personal history of the artist and his family. Truong’s work is at its most vital when presenting those moments when his memory intersects with pivotal moments in the history of Vietnam at the time. That Truong is able to recollect as objectively as he does is impressive, seldom falling into the easy trap of imposing a grown man’s judgement.

Such A Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63 may not be the raging polemic some may think the material calls for, Marcelino Truong admirably presents the duality of ‘war’ as both metaphor for a troubled marriage and the real thing. Rendering those moments of a childhood spent across different cultures and political ideologies with equal parts humor and canny recollections, the uncomfortable becomes approachable, showcasing the power graphic novels have as effective historical delivery systems. A sequel, Saigon Calling: London 1963-75, is due later this year from the same publisher; I’m anxious to continue this fascinating story.