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Book Review

Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (2017)

Truong’s concluding memoir of a childhood amidst conflict is a masterclass in objectivity and heartfelt recollection.

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For its European release, cartoonist’s Marcelino Truong’s Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 was titled “Give Peace a Chance”, which, given its content, seems more appropriate than its stateside version. Serving as both sequel and concluding volume of his two-part memoirs of a multicultural childhood that happened to include a trifecta of warring states. The cover features Truong’s younger sister Anh-Noëlle, older brother Dominique, elder sister Mireille, with Marcelino of course, recalling The Beatles’ famous Abbey Road cover. A more hopeful title might have been “All You Need Is Love”.

In my review for What A Lovely Little War, the first of Truong’s graphic novel memoirs, I cautioned that it “may not be the raging polemic some may think the material calls for,” but added it “admirably presents the duality of ‘war’ as both metaphor for a troubled marriage and the real thing.” Nothing had changed with the follow-up, which may actually surpass its predecessor in delivering its message: make love, not war.

Frankly, I’m surprised to read Truong thanking French publisher Denoël for “the total freedom of expression” to work on a project with with such a strong polemical theme in the acknowledgments. Cartoonists – French cartoonists in particular – have experienced unprecedented scrutiny and censure in recent times, especially from a nation espousing Western ideals. Witness the assassination of the Charlie Hebdo artists by Islamic extremists in 2015, in which fellow cartoonist Riad Sattouf (Arab of the Future) was once employed, or the continuing criminalization of speech spreading across Europe – and increasingly, the United States.

In two sensational volumes, Truong tempers the passions of hot-blooded patriotism and propaganda with a full-throated appeal for calm and reason. In doing so, he demonstrates the possibilities inherent in his chosen medium (cartoons) as few have, with charming sincerity and frankness that work to dispel any delusions that ‘objective journalism’ is an impossible ideal. There is perspective and there is perversion; grant us the wisdom to distinguish between them.

It’s worth noting the publication of Saigon Calling coincides with the release of Ken Burns’ documentary series The Vietnam War, a comprehensive program also worth your time. Both serve to highlight the challenges facing those attempting to disentangle history from deeply, if not dangerously, polemicized distortions.

Following the events of the previous volume, Saigon Calling follows the Truong family as they relocate from lush Saigon to the dreary streets of London. The war games enjoyed by the Truong brothers quickly give way to hormones and adolescence, trading plastic guns for BBC programs like Doctor Who (EXTERMINATE!) and the intoxicating allure of rock ‘n roll. The Beatles loom large in post-war England, and in the lives of the Truong children, to the chagrin of their poor mother.

The ongoing crisis in Vietnam itself is presented as an external force, with all information coming in via newspapers, TV reports, or second-hand from friends and loved ones. From this, a theme of outside influence develops, especially with Europe’s disenchantment with the war and growing fascination with communism. Truong would soon realize, and scoff, at those with little connection to Vietnam and what was actually happening there, yet rationalize both for and against foreign intervention. Positions on Watergate or Détente were little more than concepts in abstract contemplated while protesting or sunbathing.

For those with real connections, however, this was another matter. Truong’s paternal grandfather, while visiting London, tells a story about how Vietcong soldiers were, quite literally, on their doorstep during the 1968 Tết Offensive, at the same house in Gia Dinh the Truong family stayed in while visiting Saigon in 1961. When the grandparents discover a 12-year old boy photographing the body of a recently killed soldier, one not much older than he, they ask if he’s too young to be doing such a dangerous job. The child replies matter-of-factly: “I also do weddings, parties, sports…”.

It’s heartbreaking to see a child photographing mutilated corpses,” relates the grandfather to his startled grandchildren. Such a statement defies all rationalization.

As with its predecessor, Saigon Calling also concerns another Vietnamese war – the one inside Truong’s own family. He chronicles his mother Yvette’s growing “madness” (nervoouse braikdaounne), and her possible adultery. We now know she suffered from postpartum depression and likely bipolar disorder, and for good reason. As a child, Yvette was no stranger to the horrors of warfare on her doorstep; her family had fled during the American air raids against German-occupied France in WW2. These raids coincided with the first military use of Napalm against lingering German defenses. Her father, excited to have ‘front-row’ seats for the bombing, implores his terrified daughter to “come and see the fireworks!

Later, while attending a Vietnamese embassy reception, Yvette is distraught at seeing severely burned children in the country to receive care from British doctors, “among all the beautiful”. She notes these children are mostly mixed-race, much like her own family. Imagine children without noses or ears, with eyes that scarcely see. “Horrible details not to linger over,” she writes.

His older brother, Dominique (aka Domi), may have inherited Yvette’s self-destructive behavior, which resulted in disastrous consequences. Poignantly, Truong writes, it was a shame his parents hadn’t further encouraged Domi’s artistic nature, which his mother had sensed. His full name, Dominique Ai My, when translated from Vietnamese meant “he who loves beauty.” Truong reprints an original gouache painting from his brother here, and we believe him.

Fashion looms large throughout Truong’s memoire, often blurring the distinction between ‘clothing’ and ‘uniform’. From rebelling against shorter“VC” style haircuts to Sgt. Peppers style military jackets, there was little wiggle room when it came to showing off what crowd you swung with. Truong illustrates how one’s clothing would become markers of political ideologies, as identifiable in urban life as they would be on any battlefield.

“Baba Cools” (i.e. hippies) sported Indian style clothes, joints, sandals, with various smells wafting from them. Preppies, however, wore attractive cashmere v-neck sweaters, stylish peacoats, and ‘healthy’ looks. When a friend asks why Saigon soldiers wear “such tight uniforms”, Truong explains they didn’t want to look like Bộ đội”(North Vietnamese regulars), who prefer looser Chinese-style clothes.

Ultimately, it’s Truong’s recognition of propaganda and its value to separate warring factions that give special insight to the power of persuasion and presentation. Imagine the North Vietnamese seeing the contrast between American Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, six-foot-three, and Joint Chief of Staff General Maxwell Taylor, six-foot-five, when championing the more diminutive South Vietnamese General Nguyễn Khánh, five-foot-three. Viet Cong propagandists couldn’t have asked for a better visual metaphor for the “Saigon Puppets” if they tried.

As with Nick Ut’s iconic photo of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, Truong asks readers to consider events that led to another infamous photo in new light, General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan’s execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém, caught on camera by photojournalist Eddie Adams during the Tết Offensive. Titled “General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon“, the photo would net Adams a Pulitzer Prize in 1969, uniting anti-war supporters like never before and become a widely distributed piece of anti-war propaganda. Here, they charged, was evidence of South Vietnamese cold-blooded ‘brutality’ against the Vietcong.

As always, context is critically important as Lém was hardly innocent; just prior to his execution he’d murdered Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Tuan, his wife, six children, and 80-year-old mother by cutting their throats, the only survivor an injured 10-year-old boy. Lém boasted he was proud to have followed orders to execute Tuan and his family. The General, having previously witnessed a similar murder of an officer and his family, executed Lém without hesitation. In later years Adams regretted the devastating impact his photo had on Loan’s post-war reputation and honor, even speaking on Loan’s behalf and calling the General “a goddamned hero!” In context, it’s suggested, what would you have done?

By 1972 French progressives found Chinese-style communism possessing a ‘magical’ aura, having been disappointed by the more unpleasant Russian alternative, perhaps thinking it more “agrarian, innocent, bucolic, and exotic.” Je ne sais quoi, the French might say; nostalgie de la boue.

Truong befriends a French teacher at the Saint-Malo Lycée, one fully indoctrinated by Maoism. Mao was her god, he notes, gifting her one of those famous oil propaganda paintings of the Chairman, tailored to present a desperate people with a hero of mythological stature. “Look at the children, so happy and healthy and handsome!!” she exclaims with delight. “And your people have Uncle Ho”, she adds, with his “radiant smile and modest personality!

Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 is a book of contrasts and contradictions, of political ideologies and fashion sensibilities, distortions and distractions alike, told by a witness with happenstance of being party to all of it. Regarding the Vietnam War, née Conflict, the material has seldom been presented with such objective clarity and perspective, continuing the personal journey he began with What A Lovely Little War. They say history is written by the winners, but this is misleading. It’s written by survivors – what else is possible?