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Posted July 18, 2012
A Vietnamese Red Sorghum
While reading Flesh I couldn’t help thinking of Red Sorghum – not the movie but the novel. I thought it’d be marvelous to see Flesh in a Chinese translation, much as it was a treat to me in college when I came upon an English translation of Red Sorghum. In the hand of Howard Goldblatt, Red Sorghum became tighter and easier to read than its original Chinese which I read in my high school year.
First the emotion that Flesh brought: vividly graphic prose that grips you with horrifying scenes of human sickness, of squalid poverty, of blind superstitions, of desperate struggles in everyday hardship, of valiant efforts to face human evil head-on – all set in a darkest time of Annam at the turn of the 20th century.
Then the aftereffect: so much tragic endurance from heartbreak does not cast a gloomy view in the novel simply because Flesh is vibrant with humanity. It carries in its womb a redemptive quality that good fiction always does. Truly, it shines with a prose both lush and lilting. And that will last a long time.
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Posted August 27, 2012
Dark Fiction This is dark fiction. You are transported to a distant
place steeped in an alien culture that highlights the
ancestor-worshipping belief and unorthodox practices in animism. The
beheading horrors and the poverty wretchedness are so powerfully painted
you simply follow the narrative. This fiction is literary, judging from
the beauty of its prose, the strength of its characterization. It
portrays the dark side of humanity as equally well as it paints the love
story between the sixteen-year-old boy, who is the protagonist, and the
girl a year older than he. If Ha hits you with dark horrors, he soothes
you with the lushness of his prose and pampers you with the tender love
you wish you would fall in love again. In the end, as a reader, you ask
yourself: Is the world that horrible or that beautiful?
Posted July 31, 2012
A Pleasant Surprise
I like books that make you think about them after you’ve put them away. The power of words alone won’t cut the mustard. Only books that bring nutrition to the soul will stay around, at least in your mind. They stay alive with unforgettable characters, the perpetual clash of good and evil and what comes out of it, the human ignorance and redemption.
When I picked up The Homecoming of Samuel Lake from a New Fiction shelf in my local library, I already had a notion about this much talked about book. Then I was taken by the Flesh’s cover. Samuel Lake didn’t disappoint me; in fact, it took me to a new height. And I was wary of the letdown when I picked up the next book. I picked up Flesh. No high expectation. Read it in three days. Caught in the whirlwind of its first two chapters. And never got out of it till three days later.
Ha writes with a lyrical grace that’s seldom seen in most of the books I’ve read. The power of words. But Ha has more to offer you in his first novel, much like Jenny Wingfield in Samuel Lake, her first. These are books that you will love to discuss with your bookclub’s friends. They have so much to offer. And a darn pleasant surprise too.
Posted July 21, 2012
A Daring Novel
Years ago when I read W. Saroyan’s "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze", my thought was, I’ve never read anything like this. Having just read Flesh, a novel set in the old Vietnam (called Annam then) at the turn of the 20th century, the same thought hit me.
Flesh is written in a stylish prose. The prose is chameleonlike. Sometimes boyish, sometimes formal, sometimes poetic. And it’s deeply moving. It’s not a boy’s voice. It’s the voice through reminiscence of an old man in his seventies. His entire life is captured in this novel which opens with this simple sentence: "In my twilight years, my possessions are sparse." From there you listen to the voice and grow to trust it. And you begin journeying back a hundred plus years in time to the land called ‘Nam’.
Reading Flesh is like reading a collection of short stories. Yet unlike Jerzy Kosinski’s Steps where an assortment of surreal, odd stories works like steps that lead you to various places with no attachments to one another, Flesh packs a punch in its steplike chapters, in part and in whole. It brings us a kaleidoscope of lush descriptions of the land, the people of the old Vietnam. Its story line is serpentine, its ambiance is at times grim, at times snug, at times moody. Then comes the biggest twist in the ending. Here it is, a hint from the novel’s book trailer:
‘When the boy faces the truth about the girl he’s madly in love with, and the employer whom he considers his surrogate father, he knows he has only one answer. . . .’
‘From this backdrop . . .
Flesh takes you to the darkest side of life . . .’
Posted July 15, 2012
What a fine writer Ha is. FLESH is both sophisticated and complex; yet it delivers a spare narrative with such a sheer prose.
I haven't read anything like FLESH, regarding originality, since RICE by Su Tong. There are many debut novels that come out of nowhere and seize you and won't let go, e.g., Memoirs of a Geisha, The Tide That Binds, Cold Mountain, and FLESH is one of them. (Review originally from Goodreads)
Posted July 14, 2012
Flesh by Khanh Ha is a novel taking place in Vietnam and China. It is a coming of age story in a dark time of a young man’s life.
Life in Annam (Vietnam) is hard and ugly. A young boy named Tai witnesses the beheading of his father, a known bandit, and swears to bring back his skull to be buried with his body. On his quest, Tai becomes an indentured servant, get involved in the opium trade, meets a girl and learn more and more about the father he hardly knew.
As I read Flesh, Khanh Ha's debut novel, it seemed to me that the story is almost dreamlike. A dream in that early hours of a hot morning where you are still in between sleeping and waking up. Your conscious mind taps into your unforgotten but repressed memories which lash out in vicious force with unforgiving storylines. While not always bad, these dreams have a tendency to shape the day or the week with their brutal honesty and, quite honestly, make excellent stories.
The novel starts with a beheading and ends with a beheading, both of them witnessed by the protagonist, Tai, a teenage boy who is thrust into manhood after his father is executed (beheading #1 – this is not a spoiler, it happens on the first few pages). In accordance with his beliefs, Tai goes on a quest to reunite his father’s skull with the rest of his body and hence to bring him peace.
Much of the story takes place in 20th Century Vietnam, where life is harsh and people do what it takes to survive. The journey throughout the book, whether through light or darkness, is fascinating, violent and even heartbreaking. I do think that the book could have been a bit tighter, but that did not distract me from the adventure.
Mr. Ha is a talented writer; he does a wonderful job setting the dark, yet poetic, mood and a fine job describing settings in vivid, smells, colorful imagery. Each chapter reads like a long lost memory, as if Tai was recalling his life in an older age and telling the story to a grandchild or an engaged reader.