'Above all,' says the Vietnamese mother to her half-American baby in the womb, 'you must listen to my heart. The language is not important.' But the language is very important: Vietnamese is tonal, providing opportunities for misunderstanding and punning. Ho Chi Minh can also mean 'very intelligent starch-paste', Butler tells us in 'Letters From My Father', and in the last story Ho Chi Minh himself appears to the narrator as a Parisian pastry-cook. The verbal dislocations echo the cultural and spatial rift: communication with Americans is intensely problematic. Butler turns this to comedy with the Saigon bargirl who hears an American trying to say: 'May Vietnam live for ten thousand years,' but is actually saying: 'The sunburnt duck is lying down.' Which sounds like a profound allusion to Vietnamese folklore, so she falls in love with him, only to discover her mistake in America.
The book does a lot of explaining, but Butler, an immaculate craftsman, plays with exposition, incorporating it seamlessly into the structure. The collection is sharp with observation and surprise. Only once does this fall down, in the over-long and laborious 'The American Couple', though even here the narrative is redeemed by freshness and sensitivity.
Apart from the final story, the view is firmly from the South. Yet there is no propaganda. Butler's own voice comes through in a lingering regret, a sense of the white man's clumsiness and inadequacy, of the spiritual poverty of America. Hope - and there is plenty - is based on the exiles' own strength, flexibility and humour.Reuse content