The Demon Who Peddled Longing is rich with the kind of sensory experience that translates into a reader’s complete immersion into another time and place, allowing them to fully inhabit a 19-year-old boy’s experience in Vietnam.
Khanh Ha’s Flesh, a visceral and harrowing read, serves as a brilliant companion for his new novel. The phrase ‘body of work’ is particularly appropriate to use in discussing these books, for they share a preoccupation with natural and organic detail.
In many ways the ordinary and innocuous details which fill Nam’s everyday life are as significant as the story’s more dramatic events and interactions.
A reader will be as likely to recall the scenes filled with moonshine rice liquor and blowfish in batter, as the episodes of intimacy and violence. (If you are curious about the novel’s storyline and themes, please visit the publisher’s site or this interview with Teddy Rose, which also provides glimpses of the author’s influences and process).
The tastes (from snakehead fish to hot pepper sauce) and sounds (from the clanking of keys and a dog barking to the wind rustling and flute playing); what is smelled (from the dark damp earth to the ooze of infected tissue) and what is touched (from boils lanced on a loved one’s back to mushrooms cut and fried): all of these details add to the reader’s understanding of Nam’s experience.
Perhaps no sense is more integrally rooted in the story than the sights which are often both beautiful and harsh in the same instance. But whereas the tragic elements of experience seemed to engulf all other aspects of life in Flesh (likely deterring those readers who do not want to explore difficult subject matter in fiction), there is a solid foundation of beauty in this work.
The cajeput forest with tiny white blossoms on the trees, the yellow and green pulses of fireflies, and the fields of sawgrass and bulrush: Vietnam is a beautiful country, one too rarely represented on the page.
As was the case with Flesh, The Demon Who Peddled Longing welcomes readers who seek – rather than have experience – of this time and place. The work’s themes emphasize the human experience, and this offers an excess of opportunities for the reader to connect with Nam and recognize common elements with his personal experience.
Nam learns to find his way on the plain, just as readers learn the terrain as well. “Now he could tell the coming and going of rains by colors in the sky. An evening red, a morning grey and they’d have all-day fair weather for hauling fish.”
Sometimes the descriptive passages in Khanh Ha’s prose literally embed the human experience in the wider organic world, as when, for instance, Nam views pockmarks on the water from a light rain, water as skin, rain as touch. (See, there’s that inclination towards the visceral, never far below the surface.)
The border between the worlds in this author’s prose is thin. Conversations take place on gravestones, and mortality is always at arm’s length or within one’s grasp. The chronicle of a character’s experience in the context of human experience can be displayed in a catalogue of objects as varied as a pistol or a fishing net, a banana leaf or an explosive pack, a frying pan or a machete.
Pain is tangible, presented to the reader in pus-filled boils, an injured leg, a shark bite, kidnapped girls or a leper colony. The setting is water-soaked, with its riverside markets and riverboats, creating the impression of a narrative which weeps. And, yet, this sensation does not threaten to overwhelm the reader, as it sometimes did in Flesh (which is not to say it was inauthentic or gratuitous, rather realistic and deliberately spare) but rather the balance is slanted differently.
The dialogue in The Demon Who Peddled Longing has a very different feel than the dialogue had in Flesh; here, it emerges as a natural part of the text. This stylistic decision might put off readers who prefer the formality of indented and marked phrases, but it feels organic and natural and it perfectly suits and enhances this story. The variation between direct and indirect dialogue also offers the reader variety and displays the importance placed on storytelling and personal narrative.
“He told me every night he goes out and away from the hamlet as far as he can, until his ears can no longer pick up any sound, human and dogs, from the hamlet. He did get lost sometimes though. Told me when that happened he had to rely on his nose to smell the wind, even use his tongue to test the wind to find his way back.”
What can one do, with only one’s tongue, no sounds and no words to offer direction? What can one do with silence, in silence? Both Khanh Ha and Nam can do a lot, with stillness, with only slim threads of connections between the senses.
A character muses that he can teach a myna bird to speak the words that he does not dare to speak; a reader muses that she could recognize a spot of Knahn Ha’s prose by putting her tongue to the page.
The Demon Who Peddled Longing straddles the individual and the human experience and explores the fragile connection between states of being. A head can be all-too-easily separated from the body, in this world and in this author’s work, and life all-too-quickly snuffed out, as its forces wax and wane through infection and disease, pleasure and passion, mortality and murder.
Writers like Khanh Ha take the reader into ordinary and glorious places.