Marcelino Truong's 'Saigon Calling' Is a Beautiful Graphic Memoir of a Nightmarish Time
This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.
Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel
Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.
Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.
Saigon Calling: London 1963-75
Truong is the son of a South Vietnamese diplomat, and his account is told primarily from the perspective of the South Vietnamese side in the war, lending its sympathies toward that side. Its partiality is borne from painful first-hand experience, of course, but the book underscores two much more important, and less partisan, points.
First is the troubling role of the United States. While Truong is sympathetic toward the US-allied, South Vietnamese regime, and critical of the ostensibly communist North, his book underscores that the US was no friend to its allies. American involvement in the war simply prolonged the inevitable North Vietnamese victory and occupied the world's attention, at the expense of the very complex relationships and debates that existed amongst the Vietnamese themselves. Truong's narrative suggests the South Vietnamese regime might have had greater credibility as a struggling democracy if it hadn't been overshadowed by America's forced friendship, which tended to only delegitimize the indigenous regime in the eyes of the world. Instead of seeing a struggle between two Vietnamese protagonists, the world saw a struggle between David and Goliath: an American puppet regime in the South on the one hand and a plucky anti-colonial regime struggling for self-determination in the North on the other. The US did few favours as a supposed ally of the South, his book suggests; on top of that, it couldn't even live up to its military promise, finally abandoning the South to defeat.
The second important point Truong brings forth is that the Vietnam War was fought by Vietnamese. It sounds trite to say, but it needs to be said. Because of the impact America's role in the war had on so many Americans, and the way the world reacted to America's involvement, people still tend to think of the war as an American war. And in many respects it was – it had a tremendous impact on America's cultural psyche, and wouldn't have dragged on for so many years and cost so many lives if the US hadn't meddled. But what's often forgotten is that it wasn't just the US fighting. The South fielded armies that carried on a tremendous resistance against the North, Truong argues. While historians might quibble over the precise nature of the South Vietnamese regime -- American puppets, or struggling democracy? -- what's indisputable is the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese soldiers who died on both sides. Tom Hayden, in his posthumously published 2017 work
Hell No: The Forgotten Power of the Vietnam Peace Movement, reminds us that in addition to the estimated 58,000 Americans killed in the war and 153,000 wounded, "the figures for South Vietnam's armed forces were at least 200,000 dead and 502,000 wounded. The best estimate of civilian Vietnamese war dead is 2 million." And yet, he notes, "Congress feared that to recognize them would mean having to pay them the same benefits their American counterparts get. So they, too, are airbrushed from the official history, and thus do they suffer a double betrayal."
Truong tackles the issue head-on in his book. A Vietnamese colonel working for the South Vietnamese embassy speaks up "refuting the erroneous and too common idea that the Americans are the ones doing all the fighting." "Our combat losses are twice those of our American allies," he rages. "This disinformation comes from the fact that 80% of the 400 foreign correspondents posted to Vietnam are American, and they prefer to cover the operations where their boys are fighting…"
Truong's book is important enough as a graphic memoir of the war and its aftermath from a Vietnamese perspective, but his broader goal, it would seem, is to offer a more complex portrayal of the South Vietnamese regime. While acknowledging its corruption, nepotism, and many faults, he argues that it was also comprised of many idealistic, progressive and sincere democrats (like his father) who worked hard to build a democratic regime. Truong's books aim to rehabilitate their image and their agency in the tumultuous and bloody politics of that era.
Again, it offers plenty of fodder for debate amongst historians. Whether or not one chooses to give the failed South Vietnamese progressives as much credit as Truong does, his work is right to complicate our historical and cultural recollection of the war, especially in America. The war in Vietnam was an incredible turning point in American society, culture, and history. It sparked tremendous cultural changes and reshaped American society. Its legacy still carries that impact. Yet it's important not to forget the impact the war had on the Vietnamese, and not to allow its impact on American society to overshadow its impact on Vietnamese society. Both were indelibly affected, and it's important to acknowledge its role in both countries' cultural histories. But it is still all too often the American war experience which gets our attention.
As Truong himself stated
in a fascinating interview for Le Minh Khai's SE Asian History Blog, "The non-Communist Vietnamese have all too often been ignored or caricatured. They were eclipsed by the towering American Armada. Some, like my father and many others, did try to promote some sort of democracy, along Western lines, but their endeavors were overlooked, despised, or got drowned in the smoke of war. They were all too often sneered at and looked down upon as "puppets," the term used by their communist opponents to depict them."
Truong's work is compelling, provoking, and moving. In many ways the latest volume of his graphic memoir,
Saigon Calling, is even more fascinating than the first, insofar as it follows not only the war in Vietnam but also the culture shock of Truong's family attempting to readjust to life outside of the war zone, in Europe. Again, it's generally the war experience in Vietnam that receives treatment in American popular culture; Truong's work follows the impact of that war on families that fled Vietnam.
Truong isn't the first writer, or even graphic artist, to tackle the theme. GB Tran's magisterial Vietnamerica, published in 2010, adopted a very similar approach, telling the story of Tran's own family as they experienced and then fled the war. The artistic style of the two authors is very different. Truong's work is warm and detailed; bright and evocative of Herge-style French comics. Tran's style is more harsh and angular, albeit colourfully lush and almost akin to oil paintings. Artistic styles aside however, it's interesting to contrast the experience of the two authors, who each narrate their respective tales in the first person.
Tran's family fled to the United States in the final hours of the war; Truong's family sought refuge in England. Both experienced culture shock as they attempted to adjust to their new homes; both experienced the division of families when the North won the war; and both also experienced heartrending losses in exile. Truong's family experienced mental breakdowns and suicide. Tran's family experienced decades of division; his grandfather was a high-ranking Viet Minh officer and a war hero in the North, who had left the family when Tran's father was only a baby in order to fight with Ho Chi Minh's guerrilla army. His army's victory was bittersweet, as his family fled the country mere hours before their victory, and they didn't see each other for decades.
What both of these tremendously talented authors convey, with tremendous and edifying passion, is the tragedy of the Vietnam War. It's almost impossible to separate the tragedy of war from the tragedy of imperialism in Vietnam, because it was imperialism that dragged the war out for so many years and led to such bitter recriminations and divisions. Yet both Truong and Tran remind us that the ideologies and politics that still surround our cultural memory of the war fade into inconsequence next to the profound and continuing human suffering that the war generated. It's a lesson that, sadly, humanity continually needs reminding.