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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Recurring Nightmare BY DIANA ANHALT Past Continuous By Nguyen Khai Translated by Phan ‘Thanh Hao and Wayne Karlin Curbstone Press 159 pages, $15.95. “…people think of time as something that comes and passes by and is gone, lost, the way an exhaled breath is lost… But maybe we can regard time, past and present, as coexisting, forever entwined. The past continuous.” Nguyen Khai P ast Continuous, a curious novel by Vietnamese writer Nguyen Khai, is the kind of book I thought no one was writing anymore. At times, it resem bles a nineteenth-century romance novel, in which long-winded characters languish in drawing rooms, discuss morality and the state of the union and sip tea. But the event narrated here, a reunion between friends, takes place in the ’80s, refers back to the Vietnam War, and is set, not in drawing roomsalthough the characters occasionally sip teabut on a government owned rubber plantation in the “Iron Triangle,” north of Saigon, where much of the fighting took place. In the tradition of a roman a clef, the novel is based on historical fact, contains characters modeled on actual individuals, and refers to historical personages and situations. But I think it is best described as a “documentary novel,” the term employed on the book’s back cover. Interspersed with commentary on history, religion, art, and political intrigue, the writing often seems dated, reminiscent of a newsreel filmed in black-and-white. Its unnamed narrator, an instructor, writer, and storyteller, describes himself thus: “I am a hybrid half journalist, half novelist. A truly talented person… could invent not only a character, but an entire world.” He, on the other hand, claims his limitations have confined him to concentrating on characters extracted from real life: Quan, a former spy who infiltrated the South Vietnamese Ministry of Information; Vinh, a Catholic priest and latex worker who embraced liberation theology; and Ba Hue, a female Viet Cong battalion commander. All three had been warriors in the struggle against the American and South Vietnamese governments and continue to defend the current regime. They meet once a year on the state owned farm which, throughout the book, figures as an extended metaphor for Vietnam and its tortuous history: “Looking down from a helicopter, the bomb craters look as if they have been planted as symmetrically as the trees.” These three protagonists, along with several minor characters, tend to speak in maxims: “One lives and dies by the work one does;” “Only free people can love each other;” “…it is the ones who hold hammers and sickles in their hands that have to carry a cross on their shoulders…” In the unlikely event that some patient readers can actually suspend disbelief long enough to accept the existence of such characters, they will, in the end, find it virtually impos sible to warm up to them. But perhaps they’re not supposed to. Characters, as such, are irrelevant here. Rather, it is the concepts they embody, their interpretations of Vietnam’s past and their visions for the future, which interest the author. That, and the opportunity to reveal the “hidden truths” about the war. For those, like myself, who continue to question U.S. involvement in Vietnamin much the same way many of us today are questioning our involvement in Afghanistanthis book is packed with information. True, some of it is entirely irrelevant: Minutiae about latex gathering, climate, topography, and green tea abound. At times, the catalogue of names and details resembles an intelligence report, where a wealth of specifics is the sign of a job well done. Yet, despite these problems, much of the information is truly gripping. Khai’s comments on American liberals and their initial support of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime, the American role in overthrowing Diem, CIA manipulation of the press, the corruption of the South Vietnamese government and its army, the Americanization of South Vietnam, the behavior of Cambodia’s intellectual elite, and the role of the Buddhists prove fascinating reading. In addition to exposing the war’s underside, Khai wishes to instruct his fellow citizens on their moral responsibilities, and to teach them to sustain the goodness of spirit, valor, and strength, which has ensured their survival. In so doing, he takes on the role of the writer as educator, prophet, and muse, a posi 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5/10/02