Thursday, April 15, 2010

Love and Honor and Pity...

Nam Le's Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice has a long title. The title comes from a Nobel Prize acceptance speech by William Faulkner in 1950, in which Faulkner describes these virtues of man as the reasons man will prevail in the end rather than just endure. Faulkner says it is a writer's duty to write about these virtues to not only keep a record for man, but to "lift their hearts" and remind them of the glory of their past.

Anyway, this story is about a man named Nam who was born in Vietnam, but raised in Australia. His background is that of a "Vietnamese boat people", which he occasionally writes about. While living in Melbourne, Australia he had been a lawyer but he hated his job and hated that he was good at it so he quit, much to the disgrace of his father, and headed to the Illinois Writer's Workshop to become a writer. The story takes place here as a deadline is pressing on Nam. He has to have his final story written and turned in in a few short days, but he is struggling with writer's block and can't figure out what to write about. His father comes to visit him then. It was the first time Nam had seen him in 3 years. He finally decides to write about his father's past in a story he calls "Ethnic Story", which is ironic because he typically didn't write about ethnic topics. I think he sort of thought of himself as a sell-out if he wrote and ethnic story, but with his father reappearing in his life that's what he decided to write about. He and his father do not have a great relationship, made sometimes painfully obvious by the awkwardness and tension in their conversations. The father was hard on Nam. When he was a kid Nam's father made him develop a ten hour a day study plan in the summer. That's just ridiculous. I can't even force myself to do that every day while school is in, let alone the summer. I think it is just the asian culture. I have a few friends from the south pacific and their parents all ride them hard about school. It seems to be excessive to me, but I think they are just brought up that way. My parents don't get too involved in that kind of stuff. They ask about my grades because they want to know how I'm doing. But they don't get on my back about it because they know I am motivated on my own and don't need motivation from them. In my experience, asian parents seem to think they are the main source of motivation, and so they are pretty hard on their kids when it comes to that stuff.

Nam tells his girlfriend, Linda, that his father abused him as a child, but he defended him in his writing. On page 18 Linda says she thinks Nam is trying to make excuses for his father. I agree with her, but why would he do that? Perhaps he feels that if he excuses his father, then he can also be excused. Because his father had abused him, and because his father was excused, perhaps he can feel excused from the things he had done as a result of that abuse. Nam ran away from home when he was 16, and got wrapped up in a life of sex and drugs before coming back home over a year later. His mother was providing for him while he was gone, which his father didn't like and they separated because of it. When Nam returned home, his mother did too but they never spoke another word of it and so Nam points to that as the point where their relationships with each other were never the same. I guess he is struggling with some guilt about that. He probably feels like he is responsible for ruining his parents marriage. So if he can excuse his father, then somehow he can be excused.

Nam knows little about his father's past. The only details he has come from one drunken night when his father talked about it all to his friends and allowed Nam to sit there and listen. His father was involved in the My Lai massacre. His family and lots of people from their village were lined up along a muddy ditch and shot by a bunch of GI's. War is disgusting. It makes people do terrible things. Anyway, his father survives because his mother throws her body on top of him and shields him from the bullets. He eventually crawls out from underneath his slaughtered family, up out of the muddy ditch and walks away probably one of the few survivors. Nam writes about this and other experiences in his story, but his father tells him "There are mistakes in it" on page 22. Nam tells his father he wants to sit down with him and talk about all the mistakes. His father agrees and they do it the next day, with Nam taking 45 pages worth of notes on it. His father tells him "it's not something you'll be able to write" on page 24. Nam responds "I'll write it anyway." Apparently his father was thinking, 'no you won't' because Nam finishes the story with a day to spare on his deadline and goes to sleep. His father wakes up while Nam is sleeping and takes the story with him to read on a walk. He is gone for a long time after Nam wakes up, so he goes to find him. He ends up seeing him down by the river with the homeless man at the burning trash can again. He had burned the story. Why would he do that? Nam had written it on a typewriter. There were no other copies. He said some terrible things to his father at that moment. But he said at the very end of the story that he found out some things later that had he known them then he never would have said those things. I wonder what he found out? He mentions at the bottom of page 16 that he is writing a eulogy. Maybe that's what he is talking about.

This was a good story. While searching for the origin of the title online, I saw a lot about another one of his stories called "The Boat" which seems to be more popular than this one. I had heard of this before, but I thought it was because we were going to read it in this class. That is not true, so I guess I'll just have to check it out for myself.

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