For 50-somethings and older like me, Vietnam is likely to conjure stark images of young soldiers, carpet bombings, a napalm-burnt girl, anti-war protests, the helicopter exodus of the American embassy, and waves of Vietnamese boat people. Less well known is the period before the large scale deployment of American and Australian troops in Vietnam, a time when western military strategists thought the war against the Communists could be won by training the South Vietnamese to do the fighting.
Portland Jones’ debut novel, Seeing the Elephant, is set in 1962, when a small contingent of Australian soldiers, called the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV), were sent to Vietnam, under the leadership of the CIA, to help the Americans train South Vietnamese soldiers and villagers to fight the North Vietnamese Communists and Viet Cong insurgents.
Frank is a twenty-three year old country boy and AATTV soldier who fought in the Malayan Emergency. He has been assigned to the Central Highlands of Vietnam to train villagers in armed resistance. Minh is a nineteen-year-old Highlands villager, well educated by Missionaries, who has left his village to work on an American base, and who Frank employs as a translator.
The novel opens from Minh’s present day perspective, as a sixty-five year old retired teacher living in Perth, with adult children and young grandchildren, undergoing chemotherapy for an aggressive cancer. A side effect of the treatment is that Minh starts dreaming about and remembering his life in Vietnam, a time he thought he had “managed to forget”.
Frank’s perspective is revealed through letters written to his grandfather from Vietnam. Minh was gifted these letters and has kept them in an old shoebox at the back of a wardrobe. As the chemotherapy triggers his dreams, Minh decides he wants to remember his past, explaining to his wife, “I think that if I die and I don’t remember, it will be as though it never happened.”
The central narrative of the story switches between Minh’s remembering and Frank’s voice through his letters. We learn of Frank’s childhood with his alcoholic parents and then with his grandparents on the farm, and of Minh’s life in the Highlands, surrounded by dense forest, with its spirits and rituals. Their early lives are so different, it’s hard to imagine them ever intersecting. And yet, the inevitable escalation of war and foreign intervention in Vietnam brings these two young men together.
Portland Jones’ debut novel is outstanding. It transports the reader to a Vietnam at the crossroads of history and into the minds and lives of two young men who bore witness to the hope and tragedy. It is a story of war, but more than that, it is a story of families, and of love and loss. Seeing the Elephant is a genuine page-turner and this reviewer highly recommends reading it.
Robert Fairhead is a middle-aged dad and dog owner. He is currently working on a blog and writers website. You can follow him on Twitter at @tallandtrue.