Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Over the Moat (book review)

If there's any question about whether a book called Over the Moat can count for the "building" category of Annie's What's in a Name - 2 challenge, the subtitle is Love Among the Ruins of Imperial Vietnam. If "moat" doesn't count as a building, then "ruins" does. I actually read The Two Towers with the intention of using it for the building category but could never get motivated to write the review. It was different with this book.

I found this book by accident while searching for books to read before heading to Vietnam. This one especially intrigued me because it was set in Hue, the city in which we would be living for a month. I got about ten pages into it in the weeks before we left on the trip before, in the chaos that was my life, losing it. I searched high and low but could not find it. I finally figured I must have left it somewhere because I remembered that I had been reading it while waiting for a doctor's appointment. Oh well, I thought, **it happens. We went on the trip, came home, settled back in, and then, about two weeks ago, there the book was, on the bottom shelf of the coffee table in the living room, a place I must have looked in my search. As I said, **it happens.

But guess what? Reading this book before we went on the trip would not have been as magical as reading it after the trip was. Having visited and experienced Hue, I could relate to the book in a much more intimate way than I ever would have before going. Before I go into why, though, let me recap the book. In late 1992, the author, James Sullivan, was bicycling from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi with a friend in order to write about the trip for a cycling magazine. When all his clothes were drenched in a rainstorm in Hue, he happened into a clothing store in search of replacements. He found the clerk there, Thuy (pronounced Twee) attractive, and ended up getting her address so that he could visit her that evening. He and his friend never did find Thuy's house--there was a mixup with the house number--but Thuy and her sister found them after going out looking for them when they did not appear as promised. Jim did resume the cycling trip as scheduled but could not get Thuy out of his mind as he and his friend took the train from Hanoi back to Ho Chi Minh City and, then, home. Hopping off the train in Hue, he decided to see where things might go. He ended up "competing" with other suitors for Thuy's affection before he returned to the States. Thuy had told him that she would never make a life with him until he had lived in Hue for a year so that she could see his real character. He did return to Vietnam and, despite those other suitors, one of whom was a policeman who handled immigration issues, the story had a happy ending.

There were descriptions of Hue that jumped out at me because I had been there. One example: "Hue inspired that kind of poetry in people. Pedaling north on Highway 1, I'd found that the Vietnameses loved Hue unconditionally. It didn't matter whether you were from the north or the south, a truck driver told me ouside Saigon. "Everybody agree about Hue." It wasn't the guidebook stuff he was talking about, not the Imperial Citadel or the Forbidden Purple City or the pagodas as much as it was something else, less easily defined, qualities better communicated by gesture, by the aroma swirling off a bowl of bun bo Hue soup and a limning of moonlight over the Perfume River, by whispers and by secret. An old woman in Danang had told me that on quiet nights gold seeped out of the ground in Hue: Believe it. Back in Hue now, I was prepared to believe that anything was possible."

And: "If Hue was the most regal city in Vietnam, it could also lay claim--perhaps mroe than any other in the country--to the Vietnamese soul. Its landmark pagodas had turned out Vietnam's most renowned Buddhist monks: Thich Quang Duc, who set himself ablaze in a Saigon intersection in 1963, hailed from Thien Mu Pagoda; and Thich Nhat Hanh, the prolific exile who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King in the 1960s, was reared at Tu Hieu Pagoda."

And remember Mr. Cu, the owner of the Mandarin Cafe and the person who developed a walking tour of Hue that the sons and I took one very, very hot day? He was in here, too, mentioned as having just begun the photography we marveled at in his brochure and on the walls of his cafe. Had I read the book before we went, I doubt I would have remembered the brief mention of Mr. Cu; reading it afterwards, I almost shouted with glee when I saw Mr. Cu's name.

My one complaint about the book was that its proofreading or editing was not very carefully done. I corrected more typos than I usually do in a book. Still, I would highly recommend this to anyone who has visited Hue. If you haven't visited, go first, and read the book after. It will mean much more that way.

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