BOOK REVIEW / The sunburnt duck is lying down: A good scent from a strange mountain - by Robert Olen Butler: Minerva pounds 5.99

Click to follow
'I LIVE in America, and things just don't look the way my mother and grandmother explained them to me.' The narrators of these excellent short stories are Vietnamese refugees in Louisiana: businessmen, bargirls, demure wives who watch soap operas and go on game-shows. Their major preoccupation is survival in their new country; their main problem, whether it is possible to live when they have been torn away from their culture. The protagonist of 'A Ghost Story', for one, believes his 'rescue' from the Vietcong was nothing more than an old-style ingestion by an evil spirit. In America, he is a ghost who rides the Greyhound buses and embarrasses fellow passengers with his story. Even those whose experience was less diabolical feel homesick, dislocated, bewildered. Grandfather comes from Vietnam to live but doesn't know his granddaughter. Dad wants to amuse his son with a cricket fight but you need two types, charcoal crickets and fire crickets, and he can only find charcoal crickets. There is always something radical missing; most dramatically for the informer in 'Love', who can no longer get his wife's admirers destroyed by US bombers; more pathetically for the narrator of 'Relic', whose ancient oracle bone was lost in the war and whose new devotional object is one of John Lennon's shoes.

'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.