Ten Gogol-like tales about provincial scheming, in a first English translation for Vietnamese writer, actress, director and painter Doan Le.
Many of these picaresque stories are set in a rural area called Chua Village, a microcosm for Vietnamese society that’s rife with class and sex oppression, feudal backwardness and government corruption. In the first, title, story, the ghosts of the local cemetery all look forward to the initiation ceremony of a new arrival—the well-decorated brigadier general in the glass coffin—except that the figure who emerges is an electrician, third class retired, whose body was switched for the great man at the mortuary because of a failure to have greased the attending guard’s palm with the customary “gratuity.” “The Real Estate of Chua Village” is a satiric look at a weasely resident who attempts to sell the village pond, setting off a real-estate fever among the clannish residents who try to outdo each other in get-rich-quick schemes. In “The Venus of Chua Village,” a none-too-successful painter of The Twenty Springtimes of Woman accepts the modeling services of a beautiful young village girl sold off by her brother to pay his gambling debts. Her sacrifice deeply touches the painter, and he never parts with the painting until years later, when it’s stolen by the model’s daughter to redress her mother’s martyrdom. Occasionally, Doan Le slips into Kafkaesque allegory, as in “Achieving Flyhood,” about an aging, divorced acrobat who petitions the housing authorities for an apartment but is transformed into a fly—a gay fly, at that—and so is happily rid of the problem of housing (and women) for good. Elsewhere, stories achieve a personal, poignant tone, as in “The Double Bed of Chua Village,” about the narrator wife in bed with her sleeping husband as she resolves, clear-eyed but sorrowfully, to leave her mate of 28 years before he leaves her.
The moral of these excellent tales: Never underestimate your small-town neighbor/bedfellow.