The first work in English of lauded Vietnamese poet and journalist, Nguyen Phan Que Mai, The Mountains Sing tells the saga of the Tran family as it endures a century rife with conflict. A family of middle-class farmers from Vietnam’s middle region, the prosperous but unassuming Tran family finds itself the victim of assaults by colonialists, famines, mobs, and, greatest of all, the war between the Communist North and American-backed South. Animated by Mai’s straightforward, sincere prose, Grandmother Dieu Lan and Granddaughter Huong take turns narrating their family’s harrowing story, which at its essence is a search for harmony out of discord.
The story drops in just as the last bombs of the war rain down upon war-torn Ha Noi, where the Tran family has settled after decades of misfortune. In these closing years of the war, a walk to school for Huong turns into a bomb-shelter bound scramble for her life. After the bombing, Grandma and Huong, dump debris of their leveled home into a bomb crater, only to find they’re not alone. “Around us, men, women, and children, with torn clothes and ghostly faces, were doing the same thing, filling the eye from hell with the remains of their homes” (42). For Huong and Grandma, the North’s victory is completely pyrrhic, as Huong’s parents, aunts, and uncles are still missing in action, and the family faces starvation under the poor planning and stringent measures of their Communist government.
Out of desperation, Grandma Dieu Lan becomes a trader in Ha Noi’s black market—a strictly forbidden occupation. Though Grandma’s trading ensures their survival, it also ensures the censure from their neighbors, friends, and even their family members. Grandma Dieu Lan’s children return home disfigured physically and psychologically, their generative instincts dormant. Lovers can’t love, mothers can’t mother. As secrets and factional loyalties emerge, a reader wonders if the Tran family will emerge unified or separated further by political division.
The internal conflict in the Tran family is emblematic of life in the postbellum North as Mai depicts it, where a widening crevasse threatens to separate family and Party loyalty. While other families aren’t so lucky, in the Tran family, Grandma remains the family’s moral center. Through her retelling of their family story, Grandma Dieu Lan guides her sons, daughters, and granddaughter into acceptance, if not into emulation, of her quiet defiance of their bellicose government in favor of pragmatic humanism. As Grandma’s stories reveal, the North Vietnamese Communist Party had been as deadly for the Tran family as the French, Japanese, and American imperialists.
For the women in the novel, storytelling is not optional, but the way to survive and recover their dignity.
Grandma shares her humanistic resistance with Granddaughter Huong not only through their family’s story but also through Vietnamese translations of American books obtained on the black market. As Huong’s friends shun her for her grandmother’s trading, Huong makes “friends” with white American characters and discovers human universals in her enemies. In doing so, Huong follows the Tran family tradition, which Grandma reveals, was a literary one of farmer-poets and pastoral scholars.
Through its women’s language, the novel is a sumptuous feast of Vietnamese folklore and proverbs which chuckle with grim humor of a people forged by joy in the face of struggle. “Fire proves gold, adversity proves men” (292), Grandma says.
Though the Tran Family is resilient and fiery in heart, war and its effects threaten to silence their song. One of the novel’s motifs is silenced songs: a shattered guitar, songbirds forced into extinction by American defoliants, ghostly echoes of the songs sung by family members who won’t be coming home.
Again, Grandma guides her family to an antidote to the disappointment they face: Buddhist pacifism. “Only through love can we drive away the darkness of evil from this earth” Grandma observes (286). Through her characters’ voices, Mai’s is direct and urgent in her anti-war beliefs, and who could blame her? In this fictional memoir, Mai shares her characters’ life-shattering losses from wartime, which are similar to what her family endured.
It could be said that The Mountains Sing‘s single flaw is that Grandmother Dieu Lan is just too perfect. However, this misunderstands the novel’s mode as part family saga, part eulogy. The granddaughter’s veneration of her grandmother is culturally bound.
In the opening, Grandma’s Spirit tells Granddaughter Huong, “the challenges faced by the Vietnamese people throughout history are as tall as the tallest mountains. If you stand too close, you won’t be able to see their peaks. Once you step away from the currents of life, you will have the full view” (2).
The narrative then is Granddaughter Huong’s way of stepping back and seeing her grandmother and her family’s harrowing history for the operatic saga it is. The novel’s overtures of betrayals, and subtonics of despair, give way time and again to a triumphant, beautiful song.
Though it may be tempting to compare The Mountains Sing with Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (2016) because of topical similarity, Huong and her Grandmother maintain a purity which differentiates the work. True, Mai’s novel lacks the intrigue and the restless struggle for identity that makes Viet Than Nguyen’s works so page-grippingly tumultuous. But Mai’s work offers us something equally significant. Despite the famines, the bombings, and executions, The Mountains Sing maintains a sense of the sublime on every page. Mai’s gentle prose always comes back to Grandma Dieu Lan’s enduring harmony with the land, her history, and all of humankind.