Vietnam transitioned to a market economy like an old train lurching to life: momentous shakes and shudders, steam bursting out busted gaskets, disheveled cargo tumbling from luggage racks, sparks shooting off wheels screeching across warped rails and a whistle ripping into the placid sky.
As the government enacted new policies, tossing aside the institutions to which people had adapted deeper cultural values and traditions, communities succumbed to the machinations of the worst amongst themselves. This theme lies at the center of several of the ten fictional stories in The Cemetery of Chua Village by Doan Le and lurks in the background of others alongside ruminations on the inadequacies of love as portrayed with a surreal, dark humor.
In one story, “Real Estate of Chua Village,” rampant land speculation motivated by rumored road construction compels neighbors to scheme, cheat and steal to grab at the cash capitalism that was dangling above the impoverished village. The hysteria even draws in local producer of joss money, sending him off to print higher denominations of ceremonial currency on the prediction that in the afterlife, “hungry ghosts — heck, thirsty ones too — can fight over the street-front properties so they can set up joint ventures or joint whatevers to their heart’s content. And everything will be pressed into service for profit. The King of the afterlife will turn his cauldron of boiling oil into a sauna business, and rent out hell itself as a source of combustible fuel.”
Similarly, the surreal titular story focuses on a cemetery whose deceased inhabitants become sentient at night, carrying on as they had when alive. When a common laborer is accidentally buried in the uniform of a general, the dead first rush to grovel at their assumed superior’s feet and then, discovering the error, turn on him and one another seeking to blame and punish, and in doing so, reveal that even death cannot shake humans of their pettiness and penchant for hierarchy. The story closes with the narrator bemoaning that new zoning laws will throw the flawed but harmonious community into chaos when the cemetery land is reclaimed for development as if to say that the afterlife may not be perfect but capitalism is not going to make it any better.
Read the complete article by Paul Christiansen on Saigoneer.
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