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Catfish and Mandala – Book Review

CatfishandMandalAuthor: Andrew X. Pham

Publisher: Picador, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York

Copyright: 1999, ISBN: [0312267177]

Cover: David Tran,  Abby Kagan

Reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, 2 December 2013



Summary: In memory of the suicide-death of his sister, a Vietnamese American takes a journey back to Vietnam to find answers.

In a prelude to his bicycle journey through post-war Vietnam, the author recounts his initial bicycle trip to the “Mexican desert” where he encounters a Vietnam era veteran he calls Tyle.  This little episode sets the tone for the affect of what follows in CATFISH AND MANDALA.

After confessing to author Andrew Pham that he was “in Nam”, Tyle apologizes for “what I have done to your people.” It a very small but very powerful scene. There are a lot of seemingly minor yet powerful scenes in this book. Each carries more weight than the story as a whole.  It is this that makes CATFISH AND MANDALA enjoyable reading. What makes it thought provoking is ex-warrior Tyle, his apology and the Vietnamese people we meet during Pham’s journey. In the final chapters, we encounter more Vietnam era veterans.

In reflection, it is worth noting that all the books reviewed here relating to the American part in the Vietnam war were recommended by others.  Karl Malantes’ excellent novel, MATTERHORN (reviewed in September 2010) was recommended by a co-worker.  NOT BY THE BOOK by Eric McAllister Smith was a rather matter-of-fact recounting of an intelligence officer operating in Vietnam. It was recommended by a friend.  Some non-specific Vietnam books, like T. J. English’s BORN TO KILL: THE RISE AND FALL OF AMERICA’S BLOODIEST ASIAN GANG, which deals primarily with Vietnamese American gangs, was selected for subject matter. I have never selected a book to read about the Vietnam war. In retrospect and in light of reading CATFISH AND MANDALA, I wonder, as a Vietnam era veteran, whether I have avoided the subject because of something like Tyle’s apology.

Putting aside the Vietnam War, CATFISH AND MANDALA is an amazing travelogue. The writing is a bit flowery and anagogical for my taste, but the story told is fascinating. In the Prologue Pharm introduces the suicide of his thirty-two year old sister, Chi. This suicide remains a mystery until near the end of the book. But throughout, Pham skillfully pulls together the culture and history that partially explains the death.   He does this through flashbacks and vignettes of his travel encounters. It is so skillfully done that you forget the initial impression that Pham embarked upon his journey to escape a fate similar to his sister’s.

The story of how Vietnamese immigrated to the United States differs significantly from how the majority of first generation American arrived on these shores. Through flashbacks we learn that  Pham’s family arrived in the United State via a refugee camp in Australia after being picked up on a boat off the coast of Vietnam by an Indonesian freighter.  The family arrived in Shreveport, Louisiana in September 1977 where his youngest sister, Kay, was born. They stayed there for nine months before moving to California to be with his father’s brothers. Pham was already ten years old when he arrived and would be “Americanized” by the time his father was arrested for beating Chi, the oldest daughter. The farther was arrested and held for a day and Chi ended up running away to stay away from home for nearly twenty years.   It is in Chapter 24, titled “Chi – Daughter”, that we discover the ostensible reason for Chi’s suicide. However, it is before this, on page 184,  that Pham quotes one of his friends, Old Quan, an “elderly Vietnamese American who had seen his share of horrors” that we get what is probably the definitive reason that Pham’s sister decides to take her own life. The reason given by Old Quan seems to be the pivotal rationale behind the entire book, behind the quest that drives Pham’s bicycle journey.

CATFISH AND MANDALA is not about a suicide.  It is about the search for a perspective on a history that is both mundane and unique.  Mundane because it is a story that can be duplicated throughout recorded history:  unique because it belongs to Mr. Pham, a Vietnamese immigrant who became “Americanized” through no direction on his part but rather through circumstance.

By the time Pham lands at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Min City, formerly Saigon, Vietnam he had already bicycled some 2,357 miles: from the Bay Area in California, to San Francisco, to Seattle and some forty days around Tokyo, Japan. The bicycle made it to Vietnam. Throughout his travelogue up to this point, he has provided a few unusual observations. In Tokyo, he observes that it is a city of ancient winding streets designed to defend against and confuse attackers. A novel and somewhat stimulating way to describe Tokyo.

At the Saigon airport, showing his passport to a customs official, Pham is immediately identified as a “Viet-kieu”, which he explains means Foreign Vietnamese. These identity issues pop up frequently in the book. Pham, as an American of Vietnamese heritage, sees that heritage as a part of his sense of self. But as he continues his travel in Vietnam, the two-pillar sense of self is found to have a slippery foundation. If he is a foreigner in America, he is a foreigner in Vietnam as well. Pham does not make a major issue of this identity conundrum and eventually (by Chapter 35) becomes indifferent to it. But it is a minor issue that bobs up to relevance throughout his tour of Vietnam. By the end of CATFISH AND MANDALA, Pham has made a discovery that places ex-soldier Tyle’s “apology” in perspective.

The most memorable scene in the book occurs when Pham visits his Grandaunt’s vegetable stall in the Ben Thanh Market. By custom, shop owners are immune from the constant stream of beggars roaming the streets. As a relative visiting his Grandaunt’s stall, Pham was also immune. He describes first a young girl and her blind mother asking him for two pennies. The Grandaunt intercedes and informs the little girl that Pham is family. He does not have to give. If he did it would have shown “disrespect” for the Grandaunt. But then another little girl, six or seven, carrying a baby brother or sister in a shoulder-sling, came to the stall. She asked for coconut shells that no longer had a use. The girl, Pham says, is “an exact image—a younger image of Trieu, a former lover” he had hoped one day to marry. He watches the girl move away and drain the remainder of coconut juice from the shells and scrape whatever coconut was left.  The girl then leaves the area.  Against an admonishing look from Viet, another grand-relative, he gets up to find the little girl and give her money for food.  He writes:

“He [Viet] looked slighted, but it no longer mattered to me, his feelings, his culture. Vietnamese. Honor. Obligations. Respect. I hated it all.”

This incident seems pivotal to where Pham eventually ends up.  You get the impression that by the end of his journey, this initial bravo of hate had mellowed to a more profound but deeper realization. It comes under the category of wisdom that says it is better to light a candle rather than sit and curse the darkness.

It is in discussing the history of Vietnam that Pham brings his travelogue back to his initial discussion with the veteran Tyle.  First, he is told by Vietnamese that there is no hatred for Americans. This theme is encountered wherever Pham goes. It ties in nicely with his unspoken but hinted involvement in the suicide of his sister. Irrational guilt. Toward the end of the book he encounters a blacklisted professor (once worked for the Americans) who tells him about The Tale of Kieu, which is “a melodramatic tragicomic poem of 3,254 verses written by and aristocratic scholar named Nguyen Du and published two hundred years ago.” The poem describes the life and deeds of a prostitute.  The Professor tells Pham that it is “her dignity, her sense of humor that makes her the fundamental Vietnamese heroine. Endears her to all Vietnamese. People aspire to her nobility.”

The discussion of who and what the Vietnamese people are leads Pham back to the American Vietnam war.  He encounters other veterans who are now tourist in the city of Hue. He encounters Vietnamese veterans.  The Americans are lamenting some version of guilt; the Vietnamese veterans merely trying to live, to survive.

As for the title:  It is provocative, to say the least. In Chapter 2, titled “Catfish – Dawn”, the author recounts an episode in his father’s life, Pham Van Thong. His father has been sent to a death camp after Saigon fell. One day Thong went to the latrine. In one short paragraph, Pham narrates for us a rather epic battle of catfish against catfish for food, for survival. Catfish being a stable of Vietnamese diet, along with fish sauce, it is mentioned throughout the book. That catfish and mandala should occur in the same thought is rather appropriate on so many levels.

What I take away from Pham’s travelogue is simple: some have the luxury to thrash around in memories and guilt, other are occupied by the moment, of trying to survive, to live.  Again, it comes under the category of wisdom that says it is better to lift one person from a crumbling ditch rather than labor a life time making headstones.  Vietnam was an incredibly un-necessary war. Like the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Like the ten years Americans fought and died in Afghanistan after achieving the goal of dislodging the Taliban. It is both an insult and a sign of extraordinary arrogance for anyone to apologize for such acts of stupidity. Better not to have done them in the first place. But having done them, having acted in a moment of psychotic disconnect from reality, get back into the moment, into the here and now. See the people of now rather than the ghosts of your distorted memories.

CATFISH AND MANDALA is an excellent exposition of attitude, culture and history and is definitely worth reading.

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