Fact and Fiction in The Boat

The Dutch Historian Pieter Geyl once stated that “Imagination plays too important a role in the writing of history, and what is imagination but the projection of the author’s personality.”(1) If we were to replace the word ‘history’ with ‘a historically based story’, is this not also the case with Nam Le’s novel The Boat? Of course, one must acknowledge the fact that Le’s book is effectively a work of fiction, yet there are so many true historical elements within his stories that one could be excused for believing that Geyl had said this with Le’s writings in mind – granted that the former had lived to see our times. In each story, the author recounts someone’s struggle to find their place in the world, often to the backdrop of an event of some historical significance, while placing upon it his own fictitious mark. This essay will explore some of the ways in which Le portrays and links together a few of the complexities of truth, fiction and identity in the world we live in. Let us begin by defining what this means before we apply it to Le’s text.Quid est Veritas? What is ‘truth’ to the mind of Nam Le? Perhaps it is the “ideal or fundamental reality apart from and transcending perceived experience”. Or is it simply “conformity with fact or reality”?(2) One would suggest that Le expertly juggles both of these versions of ‘truth’ in his stories. Let us examine his opening story, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice”. This story is a prime example of this assertion. As reviewer Charles D’Ambrosio writes: “there are the old verities, stubborn truths that survive, insisting on themselves…” One such ‘verity’ is the natural bond between father and son – the family bond that withstands all. Blood is thicker than water, as is made clear in the exchange between Linda and Nam: “‘I thought you didn’t talk to him at all.’‘He’s my father.’”(3) (p. 5)Three small words contain so much significance. Moreover, in spite of the fact that they have lead separate lives for many years now, Nam still cherishes that boyish desire to please his father. “He would read it, with his book-learned English, and he would recognise himself in a new way…He would be pleased with me.”(4) (p. 29) Even after Nam’s father burns the precious manuscript, and we expect the rift between father and son to be irreparable, on closer reading we can see from Nam’s tone that this is not so: “If I had known then what I knew later, I wouldn’t have said the things I did. I wouldn’t have told him he didn’t understand – for clearly he did. I wouldn’t have told him that what he had done was unforgivable. That I wished he had never come, or that he was no father to me. But I hadn’t known, and, as I waited, feeling the wind change, all I saw was a man coming toward me… who had destroyed himself, yet again, in my name.”(5) (p. 30)At the time, he may have felt that way, but now, when he is recounting the event, he realises that his father had acted for his own good, and “the old verities” – the family ties – survive. “Love and Honour, etc” also illustrates the other definition of ‘truth’ for it is clear that Le has based this story on his own life experiences. The protagonist shares his name, childhood and career choices. At first, we get the impression that this is authentic in every way, an autobiographical account of his experiences while writing The Boat. However, we soon realise that this is not the case, when we see the fictitious Nam decide to act upon his friend’s advice to “‘totally exploit the Vietnamese thing…’”(6) (p. 9), in view of the deadline which looms before him. Clearly, his intentions in recounting his father’s experience were therefore not entirely pure – perhaps his father had a point when he declared that Nam would not be able to write the story(7) (p 25), in all its raw, undeniable authenticity. Nam himself said in an interview that “there was always a reticence on my parents’ behalf to resist that time in their lives. There’s always a cultural reticence among vietnamese people in discussing it…in a sensationalist way…”(8) Hence the reason Le feels compelled to tamper with history and stamp it with his own brand of fiction. “I charge myself not with getting something right but with doing it justice. Capturing not the essence but an essence.”(9) He may use authentic historical events, but he chooses to include caricatures instead of real people in these stories (10). By doing so, he loses some of the sympathy we may have felt towards them if they were real, for in our subconscious remains the thought that they are only figments of a writer’s imagination, and therefore, much harder to identify with – we are still moved, but not as much as he perhaps intended for us to be. Deviating from history may also make it difficult for him to convey his desired meaning to us, as we come with our own preconceived notions about how things occurred. When we discover that his stories are not as authentic as we had believed them to be, we inevitably lose faith in the historical credibility of the rest of his stories – if he sensationalises that which he knows, are the rest of his stories predominantly confined to the bounds of his imagination? How much is based on truth, and how much is pure fiction?But we underestimate Le, of course, for he knows that he has set himself a difficult task by choosing to write in this way, while endeavoring to keep “the sort of ringing authenticity that enables ‘that true empathy, that deep, clear, close inhabitation by the reader of another consciousness in another context. That’s the key, the gold in the ore – where imagination and understanding meet, recognising familiarity in strangeness, truth in otherness, and yourself, in a tricksy mess of words’(11) , for as he goes on to say in another interview: “Fiction makes strange even the places we know”(12). On the other hand, as he loses our faith in his historical accuracy, he gains our admiration in his abilities as a writer. For although some of his other stories (such as “Cartagena”, “Meeting Elsie” and “Halflead Bay”) may not be grounded in such historical or ethnic principles as “Love and Honour etc” or “The Boat”, in these stories he provides more insight into the characters themselves. The historical events are allocated to the background used as a backdrop for the action, whereas in “The Boat”, the focus of the story is essentially upon the gut-wrenching journey of the Vietnamese boat people, upon the trials they suffered and the sacrifices they had to endure. Of course, there are the ever-present protagonists (Nam and Mai), but they must be included if the author has any desire for his story to move forward. In “Cartagena”, however, we are allowed to become intimately acquainted with the boy-turned-hitman, and in this manner we are compelled to endure the dilemmas and pains which he undergoes throughout the story. It is also in this way that Le presents us with the complexities of identity. Throughout this story the protagonist Ron endeavours to find his niche in the world, as he plays at ball with his child comrades, or plays at being the bread-winner for his girlish mother. But it would seem by a cruel twist of fate that there really is no place in the world for a ‘misfit’ such as he is: unless this place be Cartagena, that place where as the sun rises, “it is a slow-motion explosion like in the movies”(13) – a child’s fantasy, for a boy who missed out on his childhood. Similarly in “Meeting Elise”, we have Henry trying to retain contact with his estranged daughter, the child who would inevitably form a part of his identity as a father, and perhaps once upon a time as a passionate young man, who had more to care for than his paintings. All of these characters are real people, people we might encounter each day on the street, people such as ourselves. This forms a sense of realism as we can identify with them, which we may find harder to do with Nam the writer or the refugee Mai. But to a certain extent, we can identify with these characters also, in view of the fact that they undergo trials equal to their state in life. Nam Le didn’t write about heroes, or even dastardly villains – he chose to write about people he knew, or people he could have known if he had been given the chance.Of course, for those of us who still believe there to be ‘a fraction too much fiction’ present in his writing, some of this realism is inevitably lost. But even if his characters are still on their quests for their respective identities, Le himself is comfortable with his identity as a writer, and masterfully manipulates the complex natures of truth, fiction and identity in whichever way he chooses so that one could go so far as to say that “All the world’s a stage, the men and women merely players…”(14) – and Nam Le is ever present pulling the strings.Endnotes:(1) Szasz, Ferenc M., Quotes About History, http://hnn.us/articles/1328.html (Accessed: 01/05/2010)(2) truth. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/truth (Accessed: 01/05/2010).(3) Nam Lee, “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” The Boat, Penguin Group, Australia, 2008, p. 5(4) Ibid, p. 29(5) Ibid, p. 30(6) Ibid, p. 9(7) Ibid, p. 25(8) Michael Harry, ‘Nam Le’s debut novel The Boat makes waves’, The Advertiser (25/07/09) http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/the-boat-makes-waves/story-e6freesl-1111117022355 (Accessed: 01/05/2010)(9) Kate Kennedy, ‘Nam Le’ in Readings (29/05/08) http://www.readings.com.au/interview/nam-le (Accessed: 01/05/2010)(10) Michael Caylo-Baradi, Nam Le: To Write or Not to Write an Ethnic Story in Popmatters (2010) http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/66821-to-write-or-not-to-write-an-ethnic-story/ (Accessed: 01/05/2010)(11) Kate Kennedy, ‘Nam Le’ in Readings, (29/05/08) http://www.readings.com.au/interview/nam-le (Accessed: 01/05/2010)(12) Jonathan Penner , “Review”, Washington Post Book World (2006) , Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group http://www.powells.com/biblio/7-9780307268082-3 (Accessed: 01/05/2010)(13) Nam Lee, “Cartagena” The Boat, Penguin Group, Australia, 2008, p. 31.(14) William Shakespeare.READING LISTCaylo-Baradi, Michael, Nam Le: To Write or Not to Write an Ethnic Story in Popmatters (2010) http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/66821-to-write-or-not-to-write-an-ethnic-story/Harry, Michael, ‘Nam Le’s debut novel The Boat makes waves’, The Advertiser (25/07/09) http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/the-boat-makes-waves/story-e6freesl-1111117022355Kennedy, Kate, ‘Nam Le’ in Readings, (29/05/08) http://www.readings.com.au/interview/nam-leLee, Nam, The Boat, Penguin Group, Australia, 2008Penner, Jonathan, “Review”, Washington Post Book World (2006) , Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group http://www.powells.com/biblio/7-9780307268082-3