Harvest of A Quiet Eye – by Craig Stevaux

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There’s a scene near the end of this poignant tale of Thailand where an erstwhile U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer finally persuades the student teacher he adores to join him at the movies. In traditional Thai culture, as practiced in the rural Northeast in 1972, a good girl does not venture out at night, especially not alone with a man, and especially not with a farang, a foreigner.

Nonetheless, here’s Orawan, a demure 20-year-old girl from the Teachers Training College, sneaking into the air-conditioned balcony of Udorn’s Amphorn Theater to be with Malcolm, the co-teacher and mentor she most respects. The so-called Sound Room with English dialogue piped in, is the special province of G.I.s with their tii-hak partners. The film is Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 box-office smash “Romeo and Juliet,” salaciously advertised in Thailand as “Children Loving Each Other” and “Children Having Sex” even though Thai censors have cut out the passionate kissing and brief glimpse of Olivia Hussey’s breast.

The idealistic American teacher and the curious Thai student-teacher are Romeo and Juliet in the parched yet flood-prone Udorn in Northeast Thailand, or Issan. Her dirt-poor family, her poverty itself and her deeply held Buddhist values are the Capulets. Malcolm’s firm intention to not be like other Americans in Thailand, his desire to absorb as much Thai language and culture a farang is capable of absorbing, and his budding Buddhist nature are the Montague obstacles to this unlikely romance.

As the Bard might have said, if he’d been assigned as a Peace Corps volunteer in Udorn, “Never was a story of more woe than this of Malcolm and Orawan.” But I’m not here to speak of Love. I’m here to describe Ugly Americans in Southeast Asia.

As the American War engulfs the region – without touching Thailand – Ugly Americans are everywhere present in a two-fisted air-base town like Udorn. We find them on the sidewalks and in bars and restaurants, bowling alleys and massage parlors. They fling F-bombs and hurl curses at the locals with the utmost insensitivity, all the while escorted by perfumed and painted Thai women – bargirls, prostitutes and rent-a-wives – who are separated from their families, or perhaps supporting them financially. The American interlopers are prone to drunkenness, vomiting, and conking out on the ground.

The U.S. Air Force and the CIA’s Air America pilots are ardently employed in the prosecution of an air war against North Vietnam, America’s philosophical enemy and Laos, America’s ally, declared neutral by international agreement. As Thais go about their daily chores, eating constantly, and Thai students are engaged in mangling English, U.S. fighter jets and fighter bombers scream across the sky, and Jolly Green Giant helicopters chop through the air. It’s no secret that the Royal Thai Air Force Base at Udorn is in the thick of the fight, under American top-brass responsible for wreaking death and destruction on Thailand’s neighbors.

Nobody seems to care, other than our hero English teacher, a Belgian American from Green Bay. However his one-man antiwar campaign in the heart of darkness is meaningless, without sound or fury.

For me, the charm of Craig Stevaux’s tale lies in the lyrical recounting of how a newly arrived farang becomes accustomed to, and learns to love, the way Thais walk, talk and think, in keeping with Thai customs, culture, proverbs and the Buddhist Path.

The memoir style, the era, focus on culture and language, and the references to the Secret War in Laos all sync with the sentiment of “Hustle the East”, a novel about Laos.  Much of the action in “Hustle the East” takes place in Vientiane, about 50 miles from Udorn.

http://hustletheeast.com

Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 – by Max Hastings

My comments below are based on Mark Atwood Lawrence’s review in the November 25 issue of The New York Times Book Review.

In 1964, North Vietnamese operatives were forcing South Vietnamese peasants to join the Vietcong’s struggle to topple the American-backed Republic of South Vietnam. In his epic book on the Vietnam War, the British journalist and war historian Max Hastings recounts the story of a villager whose son is being conscripted by the Vietcong. The anguished father lashes out at the Communists for calling the Imperialists evil because from what he can see, the North Vietnamese are “even worse” oppressors of South Vietnam’s people.

Isolating this little story, Professor Lawrence observes that Hastings’ view of the entirety of the Vietnam War falls along the same lines. Cruelty on one side was met with cruelty on the other in a decades-long escalation of atrocity and inhumanity.

“In his telling, it was a conflict without good guys. An appalling conflagration in which the brutality, cynicism and incompetence of the United States and its South Vietnamese ally were equaled only by the wickedness of their enemies, leaving the hapless bulk of the Vietnamese population to suffer the consequence.”

Hastings points out that U.S. forces were often effective on the battlefield but Washington failed to create a South Vietnamese state that could command the loyalty of its own people. It was as if America chose to use a flamethrower instead of an edger to trim a garden path.

I am reminded of the novel Hustle the East, where American ambassadors are espousing freedom and democracy for Laos while ordering B-52s to obliterate the Laotian countryside.

The novel’s first narrator, who arrived in Vientiane in 1973, quips: “It took me a while to figure out that in Laos, the good guys were the bad guys.

In a similar vein to what Hastings describes in neighboring Vietnam, more than 60,000 North Vietnamese troops in violation of Laotian neutrality committed atrocities in the name of liberating their Lao brothers from Imperialism. And the Americans responded with the ultimate in flamethrowers.

 

 

Interview with Mark Tawen, author of Hustle the East

What was the inspiration for Hustle the East?

I was living in Laos in 1975 when I discovered the book Voices from the Plain of Jars; Life under An Air War. The stories and drawings from adults and children collected on the Plain of Jars brought home to me that the United States was engaged in a horrific air war against villagers not very far from where I was. My idea was to reveal details of the illegal and immoral U.S. bombing campaign in a novel that would shock Americans. By the time I got around to finishing it 43 years later, the Secret War was no secret.

Why did you use three first-person narrators?

My first draft was written entirely in the third person. Then I decided that Benny Bendit, the American college grad, should tell his story from his own perspective. But Benny never set foot on the Plain of Jars, so I let the orphaned Lao monk Sangkhom tell that part of the story. Then it occurred to me that both narrators were male, and that a younger, female point-of-view would add another dimension, so Chansamone gets to explain for herself why she made the life-changing decisions she made.

Why is the last part of the book in the present tense?

I borrowed that device from Anthony Duerr, the master of present-tense narration. In this way, events of the 1970s move into the new Millennium.

Are you a veteran of the armed services? Have you ever killed anyone?

Like Benny Bendit, I was in a draft lottery and the ping-pong ball with my birthday came up toward the end, meaning I escaped the draft. Unlike Benny, who is fictional, I never killed anyone.

How does it feel to be a pen name?

If I said it posed a problem, I’d be lying. As my namesake Mark Twain once said: “A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar.”