The Bukowski Agency - Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains - Excerpt
Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains

a novel by Yasuko Thanh


IF YOU FAIL TO BURY A BODY, if the body dies away from home and is not honoured with the proper rituals of mourning, if the body dies unloved while hurrying on its way to an exam, or without its head, in the middle of a field, lonely, if it dies in the street, lost, if it dies a violent death, if it dies with a bamboo pole on its neck, the shoulder calloused from heavy work, if it dies alone, it will become a wandering ghost.  

In 1908 the French rule Cochinchina. The pro-independence movement is scattered and unorganized. In the south, an army trains not to fight, but to become invisible; the general is working on a potion that will make them vanish in front of the eyes of the French.

In a hundred years, one will be able to board a plane to Ho Chi Minh City and pay a woman with small feet and waist-length hair a few dong for a body massage, to be rendered and received naked in a room that smells of coconut oil.

Today there are only a small number of English and German merchants living in the colony. They sometimes dine with French Navy officers, and discuss the politics of Italian missionaries proselytizing in the area.

The French chop off the heads of Vietnamese nationalists or expel them to South American jungle camps. They display the heads in the market place; flies skulk on the eyes, nostrils, mouths, seeking moisture. Ghosts roost in banyan trees because if they descend, angry shopkeepers shoo them away with brooms.

In the North, swooping over the country as if we are a bird, one spies a bay full of pirates near the Gulf of Tonkin and fishermen’s houses clinging to the shore. Knee-deep in water, women work in the fenced-off plot of a rice paddy. On the other side of the hill, a Tonkinese coal mine and a small cattle farm shelter a group of houses where pottery-makers and brick-makers live.

Now our bird floats to the Central Highlands where Cham tribe members wander, wearing head caps decorated with polished pebbles. A woman swings a coloured shawl around her shoulders and watches a man bag a rhinoceros with a stick made of sharpened bamboo. He amazes the woman, who bellows a song in his honour. When their child, who has tired himself scurrying through the underbrush all day, has finally gone to sleep on a woven floor, moveable so it can be elevated when the river water rises, they smoke marijuana from their pipe and the scent rises into the Giant Kapok trees like a perfume. Then they make love.

Now our bird sees the Moys, another prehistoric tribe that live in bamboo houses with thatched roofs and stilts near the river. Descended from Hindu kings, they wind in procession through the fire trees, sucking regally on their marijuana pipes. The men wear loin cloths, arrows in bags slung on their backs, and the women stroll around with squares of fabric that barely cover their breasts, and both men and women pierce their ears. Their toes are spread wide from years of walking barefoot.

The ancient Chams and Moys bless hunters’ arrows so when the hunter shoots a bull, not a single drop of blood is spilled. They tell stories that stop worms from wriggling in the ground.

Now in the South, in the Mekong Delta, the bird spies water buffalos pulling wooden harrows to plow seed beds. Lotus flowers sprout from mud-flats. Children pounce on each other in the water. Fish ponds flank roads busy with farmers, lazy with bamboo.

Further south, nearing Saigon, Vietnamese women work cramped shops lit by red lanterns. In the theatres men dressed as women play the parts of women, and play them so well it is impossible to tell them apart. One sees a gigantic barracks built by Chinese labourers, French-built houses of several storeys with encircling verandas, a closed carriage with two horses, an open carriage with one horse, a pagoda, a covered market; on the banks of the river thousands of boats bob up and down -- a veritable floating city.

Along the Song Saigon, arrack palms preside over the large open spaces between houses on the shore. The roofs of the wooden houses are woven from palm leaves, and wickerwork walls divide the rooms within, affording little privacy, since they do not reach all the way to the ceiling and, moreover, are thin and let through every sort of sound. (A few of the houses built by Chinese immigrants a hundred years ago are made of stone with red tile roofs, and these afford slightly more privacy.)

And now we have arrived at Dr. Nguyen Georges-Minh’s house. His neighbours’ houses rest on the far banks of the Saigon River, where fog sweeps the waters the way a bridal veil might sweep a lover’s face. Georges-Minh lives in a villa in the Thao-Dien area. The house was built by the French fifty years ago, neoclassical by design, modern in every aspect, although his toilet is just a hole cut out of a wooden plank, open to the sky. Fish charge the pilings when they hear his footsteps on the jetty.

In addition to working in his home office in one wing of the villa, Dr. Nguyen Georges-Minh works part-time at Clinique de la Dhuys near the downtown harbour, treating the growing number of prostitutes, who to him are a result of colonialism: poverty and class oppression, and the sexual decadence of the wealthy and powerful. To him, collaborators are simply political prostitutes who are willing to submit to foreign rule in exchange for the pleasantries it provides, or who submit out of fear of violence, but for whom no pity can be offered; in contrast to the girls, boys, men, and women whom he sees at the clinic, dying, who have no option but to sell their favours, who have an unquenchable yearning for imported French goods that lie beyond their means: vestments, sweets, food, medicine, perfume, cosmetics, horse-racing, tennis, bicycling, paddle-boating, cigarettes, cocktail parties. Clinique de la Dhuys is funded by the Ministry of Public Health of France.

Georges-Minh’s neighbour, the manager of the Banque de l’Indochine, who is from Paris and no devil, and who has this way of wiping his son’s mouth with the hem of his shirt with a tenderness that Georges-Minh finds touching, on many nights plays racquetball with Georges, and last week offered Georges some trout heads from his recent fishing trip.

Georges-Minh has a medical degree from the Lycée Condorcet, Paul Verlaine’s university. What he owes to the French, and how they’ve fucked up his country, together carve rifts in his psyche, and he is slowly going mad.




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