Phong Nguyen’s newest book, Bronze Drum, is a grand and lovely work, high-minded and beautifully realized. He fleshes out, in fiction, a myth of the Việt people that he first heard from his father, and, always intrigued by it, later researched. He introduces the story in the most inviting way. He explains the historical basis for the myth, and the evolving reverence for it, with the major characters raised to sainthood. Then, in a Prologue, Kha, himself a character in the battle, seems to step backward in time and call the audience to the unfolding of the great event, a “sublime moment,” as though it’s going to occur right now. It’s a stirring beginning and the story meets the the expectations raised. I love the book.
Here’s the situation: In 35 CE, The Lạc Việt people live under the increasingly restrictive and unjust rule of the Han conquerors who impose Confucian philosophy and order on their subjects, and who tax them unfairly. Under the Han, regional lord Trung and his wife have managed to raise their two young daughters in gracious comfort, and under their own traditions. They are from a matriarchal culture, the daughters are broadly educated, including martial arts. While required to be dutiful in meeting family expectations, the young women are free to express their own natures, and to take as lovers whom they will. When marriage is imposed and a burdensome tax levied, the sisters rebel. Though they differ greatly in personal nature, both desire freedom for themselves and for everyone. They gather and lead an army of women to overthrow the Han oppressors, with a brilliant strategy.
This is masterful storytelling, engaging on most levels. The characters aren’t endearing at first, though they become so as mythical characters do, through extreme traits that are strengths and also flaws, memorable excesses. They’re the kind of character one remembers—the impetuous Trung Nhi, the contemplative Trung Trǎc. The sisters first rebel against family and in their own quest encounter challenges and punishments that are vivid, poetic, and touching. Trung Nhi, for example, who has to be outdoors and active, is imprisoned and denied the sound of human voice; Trung Trǎc, who finds a “life of learning” a great gift, must scale a mountain and acquire survival prowess in search of the “heartbreak flower.” This is wonderful stuff. Many colorful characters people this work and exemplify a quality. Almost all, maybe all, embody a contradiction or conflict. Kha, for example, is guardsman. Whom should he guard? And Phùng Thi Chính the cook, mother to four sons, giving birth in battle, grabbing her shield and leaping into the fray. What a powerful symbol of motherhood and warrior, breaking taboo gloriously.
The plot is quick and straightforward. It moves from the palace, courtyard, town, to the mountain land, and then to battlefield. One reward in that movement is the unfolding of the physical reality of the country, the architecture, parks, gardens, food, animals (Tau the turtle has a minor role). This is Việtnam a thousand years ago, before our experience with it, our preconceptions and biases. We learn its beauty. The descriptions overall suggest order, airyness, harmony between the natural and civilized world—except for battle. The unfolding of the plot introduces the layers of the society, highlights differences in the lifestyles of those ruling and those being served. The difficulty of being fair and just, of freedom, expands. The story is a deep look at a society oppressed. And there’s nothing really new there. We see it all over the world, and in our own country. This is one effect of great literature. To set out what we should all say No to.
Every scene encourages scrutiny. An early passage involving the punishment of the beggar Duy, for something he didn’t do, offers different perspectives about what occurs. Ensuing scenes do the same probing. We’re urged to question. What kind of rule must one disobey? When is honor not a good reason to fight? How much can and will a person sacrifice to have order rather than chaos? That last is a question for all classes, the governed and the governing. It’s not that Bronze Drum provides definitive answers, but that it presents two sides at least, and suggests these problems are relative, eternal. They have to be decided over and over. As now, when borders are being breached, identities ridiculed, people impoverished. When oppression diminishes and smothers human lives, people must rebel.
A great point, made often, is that people, especially leaders, must learn the “other” way of thinking and being, at least to acknowledge it. The sisters earn this through suffering, and when they join powers are a formidable force. This point is made at length through Trung Trǎc’s two meetings with the Degar, the people of the mountain. They see no reason to join the rebellion since they aren’t affected by the Han oppression. Their ways are their own—primitive, harsh, physical. If they are to join the battle, there must be a reason to do so. They are Việt people but in their attitude are from a separate country. Painfully familiar.
The most beautiful passages in Bronze Drum are about love. Love. The right to love whom and as one wishes is central to the rebellion. Both sisters fall in love with a person below their social status, but it’s the kind of love between Trung Trǎc and Thi Sách, her tutor, that is developed deeply, at length. The attraction of minds precedes physical attraction and the blend completes a different world for the couple. It’s an idealized love, gracefully developed, and believable—romantic in the best sense. One thinks, let this last. Such intense love between individuals, which may happen rarely but should never be denied, is like a chalice to all humans.
Beguiling language is a great pleasure in this book. Nguyen risks overstatement, but that suits the legendary nature of Bronze Drum. One has to attend the language. The tone and the slightly elevated and formal narrative create a distance from our vernacular. That distance remains through shifts of point of view, in different domains. There’s individuality, but nothing really common. Many, many lines tug the heart or mind, or both. “Guilt ruptured and rent him.” “ Their memories arrayed themselves like an audience to this moment.” “Closing her eyes from a transport of joy.” “’The mind assigns personality to everything . . . even the void.” “[He] may be a ghost and a memory, but I am now his tooth and claw in this world.” The language is simply rich, always saying more than the words, creating this other world, but real. It’s a comfortable and consistent storytelling that one can give into, that guides, simultaneously authoritative and pleasing.
Nguyen is the author of two collections of short fiction, and two other novels. He has proven his great talent in capturing dialect and multiple sensibilities, in innovation, and especially in dealing with ideals, our best. His works are bold and ethical. Bronze Drum is the most powerful to date.
Grand Central Publishing