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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 1996-11-01
  • Publisher: Univ of Nebraska Pr

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Like author Linda Le, the young woman who narrates this novel is from Vietnam and is a writer, a "dirty foreigner writing in French." The narrator has distanced herself not only from Vietnamese society but also from her family. Her story is an exercise in clear-eyed fury revealing three generations of a cursed family. The grandfather was a lunatic the family locked away and declared dead to avoid shame; the father is a failed artist and humiliated cuckold; the mother is a simpering beauty consumed with lust; the uncle is declared insane because of his incestuous love for his sister, who hanged herself. The narrator, on the verge of a profound depression ever since her mother told her she was illegitimate, alternates her story with her uncle's journal. In an acid style burning with compressed lyricism and savage irony, these parallel monologues sketch misfortune's family tree. Linda Le, who traveled at age fourteen from Saigon to France with a wave of "boat people," is one of the leading young novelists on France's brave new literary scene.Slanderis Le's fifthand most celebratednovel.

Author Biography

Esther Allen is the translator, with Monique Chefdor, of Blaise Cendrars’s Modernities and Other Writings (Nebraska 1992).


Chapter One


They aren't going to leave me alone after all. [paragraph] Ten years locked up in this colony of half-wits, ten years spent side by side with psychos, spastics, dodderers, lobotomy cases, geniuses who bungled their vocation. Ten years among the albinos, waxen faces that come alive only to insult me, to call me Monkey-Face during their rare moments of lucidity. [paragraph] Just when I thought I was safe. Here I am, trapped by my genes again. Now a letter comes to remind me of the family that corroded my brain, assassinated my youth, sabotaged my life. A letter. From a pretentious little thing (you can see it in the large, bold handwriting, the way she turns a phrase, the way she writes French; as if someone like me, who learned French in the nuthouse and only so I could ask the attendants not to hit me too hard or to give me an extra blanket, as if I were capable of appreciating all the subtleties of the beautiful French language she wields like an apprentice murderer brandishing a kitchen knife). [paragraph] I've done my share of cultural spadework too, of course. Five years in a public library, reading everything that passed through my hands. Culture, I told myself, culture at all costs--the idea was to get my head back together. [paragraph] Still, I feel pretty good in this library. I sort the books by genre and put them in alphabetical order. I move through the shelves, I inspect them, checking to see whether any books are out of place. Every so often I'm asked to throw out the old system and reclassify everything. For two days I play stock boy. I pretend to be thrilled by the new system of classification, knowing perfectly well that the whole upheaval is completely useless and in the end everything will go back to the way it was before. In between shelving, I can stroll around, do nothing, smoke a cigarette in the hall. I'd rather retreat to the far end of the library, find a hiding place, and read. I never read a book all the way through. I choose every kind of book. I go from novels to journalism to historical narratives to diaries. The main thing is to have a parade of words moving under my eyes. The librarian holds me up as an example. The madman, the loathsome, swarthy foreigner, the meteque, who set himself to reading books. Culture saves ... [paragraph] Evenings, I go back to my room, I read while I eat, I read before I go to sleep. And to think they locked me up because my nerves were a little too highly strung. I didn't know then that there was an excellent sedative: culture. [paragraph] I was at peace. Alone in the world and happy about it and at peace. With the books that help me live but that my body will only tolerate every other day, like a medication that saves your life but gives you diarrhea and makes hammers pound in your skull. I was alone and at peace. And that uppity little miss had to come and torment me. Remind me that I have a family, a family that held the door of the asylum open for me, that packed me away into the asylum in Correze. What a joke! They must have slapped their thighs, thinking about the one they pulled over on me. [paragraph] Fifteen years now since we saw each other. I had quite honestly forgotten she existed. Nieces always push their way back into your memory in the end, though. As little girls they show you their bare thighs and crooked teeth, leaving behind a scent of vice nipped in the bud. When they reach the age of seduction they forget you, but at the first crisis they come to you and demand that you validate their existence. They fall back on uncle the way a diva falls back on her oldest admirer.

There's only one thing she and I have in common: books. That's what keeps her going, it's her business, her daily bread, her stimulant. For me, books are tranquilizers. Thanks to books, I play dead. [paragraph] When the family sent me off in the airplane to France, to the asylum in Correze, she was ten or twelve. She arrived in this country a few years later. She's made herself a writer. A distiller of tranquilizers. A manufacturer of sedatives. She could have contented herself with being a pimp for words and left me alone. I might even have started reading her books. But she had to come and drag me out of my hiding place. What is she looking for? You might almost think she had run out of inspiration. [paragraph] There's no other word for it: she has come to torment me. As if I could possibly know anything, as if my memory were intact. Ten years among madmen and suddenly I am designated the guardian of truth. She places a life, her life, in my hands. If I happen to feel like telling one story instead of another, it will change the course of that life. She's crazy, I tell myself again and again. You have to be crazy to ask a madman for directions. What has gotten into her? Is it because she loves taking risks? Is it her taste for novelistic situations? She tells me, You are the only member of this family with whom I feel like establishing a link. Establishing a link! No one talks like that! She's curious about me because I'm the only madman in this tribe who's been locked up. The others were left free to go on wreaking their havoc. [paragraph] It's been five days since the letter arrived and for five days I've had a headache. I don't read anymore. I scribble. As soon as I've finished my shelving, I slip back to my corner at the far end of the library and write in my notebook, a big notebook with a soft gray cover. I'm not quite sure what I'm writing. Undoubtedly a report. A report I'll be able to send her so she'll realize I'm incapable of remembering anything. I'm writing a report. On her life. On my life. A report on betrayal. How I was betrayed by my own. How she betrayed them in turn. As if she were avenging me. They exiled me by force. She left of her own free will, clapping her hands with delight at the prospect of an immigration that--she foresaw, she hoped--would deliver her from the family heritage. I had to learn French among madmen. Meanwhile, French has become her only language, her tool, her weapon. The weapon she uses against her family, against the Country. Thanks to that weapon, she will always be alone. She's a meteque, a dirty foreigner, who writes in French. For her, the French language is what madness has been for me: a way of escaping the family, of safeguarding her solitude, her mental integrity. I have nothing to say to her. She's trying to make me her accomplice. What do I remember about her? Her skinniness, her strange hair, with reddish glints. She was always following her father around--he was her guide, her playmate, her keeper. [paragraph] The father, the great affair of her life.

Copyright 1993 Christian Bourgois Editeur. All rights reserved.

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