Such a Lovely Little War: A Memoir

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.

2017-09-14T13:06:34+00:00

12 Comments

  1. Alley September 28, 2017 at 8:35 pm - Reply

    Wow. This sounds excellent. I have had trouble getting into comics and graphic novels with the exception of memoirs so will def keep an eye out for this.

    • Buried In Print October 3, 2017 at 1:18 pm - Reply

      I loved the way that the kids are sometimes “just kids”, being completely ridiculous (i.e. kid-like). The idea of it being normal family life, plus war. Which, for those of us who haven’t experienced it, find difficult to imagine.

  2. Stefanie September 14, 2017 at 2:57 pm - Reply

    Oh, this sounds really good! And now it is on its way to me from the library ūüôā

    • Buried In Print September 14, 2017 at 4:31 pm - Reply

      You’ll probably want the second volume at hand, if it’s available to you; they only just arrive in London a few pages from the end and it left me really wanting to continue on with their story!

  3. Life of a Female Bibliophile September 14, 2017 at 9:08 am - Reply

    I love graphic memoirs. I haven’t heard of “Such a Lovely Little War” and from your review it sounds like a heartbreaking but powerful read. I’ll add to my TBR.

    • Buried In Print September 14, 2017 at 10:29 am - Reply

      It’s definitely a worthwhile read and offers an uncommon view of events in Vietnam during those years; I hope you find it rewarding!

  4. Rebecca Foster September 14, 2017 at 2:15 am - Reply

    I love “graphic memoirs”; I have a review of one (Tillie Walden) posting tomorrow. Do you think comics are an ideal way to temper the trauma of childhood experiences? It does seem so on the evidence of some of the ones I’ve read.

    • Buried In Print September 14, 2017 at 8:27 am - Reply

      Something inspired me to drop all four of her books on my GR TBR not long ago (I know you have a rule against marking more than one book by an author as TBR there but I seem to have the opposite rule – heheh) but I haven’t read one yet. For young audiences? Maybe. But, I’m not sure. When I was younger, I felt very easily excluded, so if a book cover pictured a girl unlike myself then the story immediately had less relevance to me (fewer secrets in store), and whether this was because I was on the margins to begin with or because the visual element carried a skewed importance, I’m not sure. But in a text story, I could easily overlook a single description and practically write myself into the story without visuals (other than occasional line-drawings) to distract. Maybe that was just me? Do you have favourite graphic coming-of-age stories?

      • Rebecca Foster September 14, 2017 at 9:19 am - Reply

        I meant a way for the author to work through childhood trauma, rather than the reader. Alison Bechdel’s is one of the classics, of course, and coming out as well as coming of age — Tillie Walden’s Spinning is in the same vein.

        • Buried In Print September 14, 2017 at 10:14 am - Reply

          As a grown-up reader I am thrilled to see so many illustrated options now, which I didn’t have when I was a younger reader; I wish more stories had pictures these days (like Dickens and Eliot always used to) and I’ve got several favourites amongst the graphic memoirs I’ve read, including Sarah Leavitt’s Tangles and Mariko Tamaki’s Skim (written as fiction but compelled by personal experience). Spinning defintely appealed to me because of the dance angle, which I’ve always been drawn to although terrifically uncoordinated in real life. What drew you to it?

          • Rebecca Foster September 14, 2017 at 10:19 am - Reply

            Interesting you should mention Mariko Tamaki — Spinning’s art style reminded me most of her book This One Summer. I did love watching competitive figure skating with my family when I was young, but mostly I just accepted the publisher’s offer of a review copy because I’ll read any literary graphic novel. I think I only started reading them about 7-8 years ago; I certainly wasn’t aware of them as a teen.

            • Buried In Print September 14, 2017 at 10:32 am

              They’re very tempting, too, because when you’ve got such large in-progress stacks as we do, it’s an especially welcome relief for a change of pace from all those pages filled with text. Oh, yes, This One Summer, I just loved that one. I’m looking forward to your review tomorrow; perhaps I’ll be scrambling for a copy of Spinning after all.

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