One man's tale of war, escape and exile

Catfish and Mandala: a Vietnamese odyssey by Andrew X Pham (Flamingo, £10.99)
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The Independent Culture

I read this book when just back from Vietnam, and a mystery was unlocked on every page. Mysteries of pride and etiquette; matters religious and culinary; official extortion and the mad generosity of those with nothing to give. I began to grasp the complex emotions behind the "welcome to Vietnam" smile; I realised why my neighbour on the flight from Hue to Hanoi spoke of his "re-education camp" with tears welling in his eyes.

Andrew X Pham, born Pham Xuan An, left his native land as a "boat person", grew up in California and was recently impelled to return to his roots. But not the easy way: alone, by bicycle, eating and sleeping among the poor. Pham's occasionally brandished knife - and inborn streak of violence - powered him through hair-raising encounters, but his Americanised intestines failed to cope with the local bacteria. He cycled from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Hanoi in a condition that would drive ordinary mortals to hospital. As he is an acute and evocative writer, the result is a rough guide to make the Rough Guide to Vietnam sound like the obscene lap of luxury.

But his real goal is to discover his own personality, twisted by geopolitical fate and tortured by a family tragedy of which his sister Chi's suicide was only the presenting symptom. His tale is interwoven with a finely calibrated network of flashbacks in which war, imprisonment, escape and exile are shown to leave their indelible mark on everyone.

One of the most terrible scenes involves the 14-year-old Chi being beaten black and blue by her father for disobeying him and accepting food from a leper. By that point we have already had graphic accounts of the father's life in the Viet Cong re-education camp, where he nightly expected to be taken out and shot. A man of refined intellect, he had been a political commissar in the South Vietnamese army; clandestine flight in a leaky boat with a crew of avaricious idiots was his last-ditch ploy to evade a bullet in the neck. In America he took a job as a janitor, which gave his bottled-up anger even less chance of resolution. No wonder his offspring (including one who underwent a sex-change and two gays, as well as the narrating eldest son) grew up unhappy in their skin.

It is a measure of Pham's achievement that when his father is later arrested for child-abuse - the beatings continued in exile - one almost feels that the American police are guilty of intrusion, so comprehensible is the culture the family carry with them. Then comes a jolt of self-awareness: "I didn't stop caning my brothers until last year, when little Hien came at me with a knife and made me realise how screwed up we all were."

The book is as much about the future as the past, with every event scrutinised for what it may portend about his identity. As a Viet-kieu - foreign Vietnamese - Pham is envied and hated by his erstwhile compatriots. He finds plenty to hate - notably corruption and grovelling humility - in return. On the other hand, "the Vietnamese gift of silence" is a phrase that recurs, indicating a stoic poise he recognises as a virtue. When he has drained his cup to the lees - revisiting his home, his father's prison and the beach from which the family escaped - he realises it is no longer his cup at all. America is where Pham now belongs.

Catfish and Mandala may be fascinating political sociology (I shall leave readers to discover the discreetly revolting charm of the catfish), but its real power is visceral. Pham records his encounters with beggars, sadists, prostitutes and simple country folk with a bursting heart and a Dickensian eye for detail. The deaf-mute boy who befriends him in Hanoi, the despairing jade-cutter who jumps from the roof of the internment camp in Indonesia, the one-legged veteran who scoops him off the road when he can't go a step further - they are unforgettable figures.

But the figure who permeates every page of this memoir - limned by her brother's grief and remorse - is the beloved elder sister who, unable to play her allotted role, hanged herself after changing her sex.