A child’s experience of war is strangely pure and slanted. The impact is wholly dramatic at times. Its inconsequence just as overwhelming at other times.
Sharing his experiences growing up in a French-Vietnamese family in Saigon, between 1961 and 1963, Marcelino Truong’s graphic memoir is vibrant and informative.
Some family members and workers make a particular effort to afford the children the chance to be oblivious to the conflict.
Their grandfather in Saigon takes them around the ctiy, sharing its pleasures freely with them. Including ice-cream at Givral’s and books at the Portail bookstore.
Sister Mireille, often pictured nose-in-a-book in other panels, is shown saying: “I love the Comtesse de Segur and ‘The Famous Five’. Readers can practically feel the downwards tug on her grandfather’s arm, as she declares her adoration.
In turn, the children’s grandfather promises to read some passages from his favourite bedside book. (It’s never occurred to me to keep a favourite bedside book: now I wonder what I might choose. Is there anything better than a book which encourages one to contentedly alter one’s bookish path?)
Even though it feels like the war is forever away, just a few pages on, Marcel’s eight-year-old brother is drawing the machinery of war: trucks and planes and even a missile.
Still, everyday life unfolds. “In our room, the fan stirred the air like a spoon in a boiling cauldron.” Battling the heat is one challenge. Relentless and omnipresent.
Battling their mother’s mental instability, as the political situation intensifies around her, is another. Constant but occasionally flaring to a crisis.
Sensory details add another dimension to the story, alongside the soft shades of colour, consistent for a few pages at a time, adding to the sense of chapters within a longer, unpunctuated story. Cicadas whirr alongside the engines of war. Children play while parents debate.
There are frequent double panels which outline specific events of significance in the war, here, the diary-like handwriting is cpmpressed, dates and acronyms carefully notated.
But this remains a child’s experience of war in the narrative segments. Even while the family is huddled beneath a table, sheltering from the shots being fired outside, the children are giggling at the fact that their mother said ‘shit’ on the telephone.
The children nimbly shift between languages, with the bulk of the narrative translated from the French by David Homel but frequent passages in Vietnamese translated at the bottom of a panel or a page depending on the length. This is not disruptive, merely adds to the multi-faceted nature of the chidren’s experiences.
An aspect of the war which fascinates is the “dragon lady”, Madame Nhu, described as well in a letter the children’s mother writes to her parents in Saint-Malo in March 1962.
(The letters offer another glimpse into the adult experience of the war, albeit one which is crafted to reassure family far away. An addendum offered by Mireile later in the story provides a humourous glimpse into the marital strain observed between their parents, as political tension increases, and the question of what to share in correspondence arises.)
Madame Nu’s redesigned uniforms for the Sisters of the Republic (the armed branch of the feminist organization, The Women’s Solidarity Movement) are drawn in some detail, and shown in constrast to the traditional style of dress which Madame Nu modernized.
And as if that’s not enough to bridge the gap for readers, a footnote explains that Episode 45 of “Star Trek” (“A Private Little War”) was directly inspired by the beginnings of the American involvement in Vietnam, including allusions to some of the historical figures portrayed in this memoir.
In the final pages of the volume, the family moves to London, England, setting the stage for the second volume of Marcel Truong’s memoirs.
A pleasure to read.