Ancestor Worship

Monkey Bridge by Lan Cao is a novel about ancestors and family curses. The story opens in Arlington Hospital. Tranh has just suffered a brain seizure. Her 17 year old daughter Mai waits at her bedside. But Mai cannot separate her memory of a Saigon military hospital. She hears gunshots tear through the plaster walls. She sees the medic rushed into the operating theater.

The calm of Saigon had always been unreliable, narcotically unreal. Who could have known before the man was cut up that an unexploded grenade, fired from a launcher — not a dead bullet — had lodged in the hollowness of his stomach?

Lan Cao, Monkey Bridge (Penguin 1997)

I found Monkey Bridge in a list of must-read Vietnamese literature. Having already read Night Sky with Exit Wounds and The Sympathizer, I was looking for a different perspective on Vietnam. Monkey Bridge turned out to be a guide into the streets of Saigon as much as it gave me insight into the lives of South Vietnamese refugees in the US.

Old Saigon

Monkey Bridge weaves back and forth in time. The inciting incident — the event that sets off all other events in this novel — is, of course, the Fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. The childhood memories of Mai and her mother are idyllic, peopled by doting fathers, as green as a rice paddy.

Mai recalls shopping every day with her mother. How skilled her mother was at negotiation. How well-respected she was, too.

In Saigon, we had only outdoor markets. “Sky markets,” they were called, vast, prosperous expanses in the middle of the city where barrels of live crabs and yellow carps and booths of ducks and geese would be stacked side by side with cardboard stands of expensive silk fabric from Hong Kong.

In Old Saigon, Tranh is the wife of a respected philosophy professor. She cares for him, their daughter Mai, and their household with great skill.

My mother knew, from the vendors’ songs, the coded cadence of their voices, the distinctively nuanced tap-tap-tap of their wooden sticks, what it was they were hawking.

Little Saigon

The Little Saigon where Tranh and Mai settle is in Falls Church, Virginia. Tranh takes comfort in their proximity to the American capital. Mai understands that, in the event of a nuclear attack, Washington, DC will be the first target. This is only one of many instances in which mother and daughter diverge in their understanding of the new world around them.

In many ways, Monkey Bridge is an immigrant story I recognize in my own family. Lack of documentation means you can reinvent yourself. How else could my grandmother end up with three pieces of ID each stating a different date of birth? Lack of documentation in Monkey Bridge also means you can sanitize the past. A former bar girl can present herself as a virtuous Confucian teacher. A draft dodger transforms himself into a decorated veteran.

Many immigrant children guide their parents through the new world. They try to teach their mothers and grandmothers not to haggle at the supermarket. These children become fluent in the ways of the foreigners and, in so doing, become foreign, too.

I was like Kiki, my pet bird in Saigon, tongue untwisted and sloughed of its rough and thick exterior. According to my mother, feeding the bird crushed red peppers had caused it to shed its tongue in successive layers and allowed it to speak the language of humans.

A Love Story

The man at the center of Monkey Bridge is Mai’s missing grandfather, Baba Quan. He was supposed to come with Tranh and Mai to the US. Mai believes that she can bring him out of Vietnam and thus heal her mother’s broken heart. The man is a legend in his granddaughter’s mind. A farmer, devout Confucian, a fisherman who can stride across a rocky shore on six-foot bamboo stilts. A monkey bridge presents no obstacle to a Superman like him.

[T]he bridge was a thin pole of bamboo no wider than a grown man’s foot, roped together by vines and mangrove roots. A railing was tied to one side, so you could at least hold on to it as you made you way across like a monkey.

Baba Quan’s absence forms the central mystery of Monkey Bridge. Why didn’t he join Tranh on her flight out of Saigon? Where is he now? Is he alive? But mother and daughter find it difficult to speak openly of such a tender topic and this, in turn, leads to a degree of repetition.

Mai is the principal narrator, making guesses about her mother’s thoughts. Tranh responds in the form of letters to her daughter, which she hides away in a drawer. This leads to a certain amount of repetition, both in the narrative and the images used. For example, both women return repeatedly to an ominous black statue that once stood in front of the parliament building. Mai tells us repeatedly how much her mother loved Baba Quan.

Lan Cao manages to pull it off by the end of the novel, introducing a twist that is both plausible and unexpected. Love wears many faces in this novel.

16 September 2019 | Karen Kao