The Boat by Nam Le (2008) 312 p.
It’s well-known in the writing and publishing industry that the reading public is far more interested in buying novels than short story collections. When I worked in a bookstore in 2011, Nam Le’s The Boat was the only story anthology – not the only Australian story anthology, the only story anthology full stop – that I recall ever selling any copies of whatsoever. And it was three years old at the time! It’s a sad piece of anecdotal evidence for the popularity of the short story, but a very nice one for Nam Le.
The Boat won a raft of awards and is plastered with praise across front and back covers, coming from sources as lofty as Junot Diaz, Peter Carey, The New York Times, The Guardian and The Washington Post. And Le deserves it – his writing is instantly, irrefutably excellent, especially for somebody so young (he was 29 when The Boat was published, and most of the stories are from earlier than that.) Le has also received praise for the wide-ranging scope of his fiction, featuring stories ranging from a Colombian assassin to a New York art dealer to an American woman in Tehran. Those stories are bookended in The Boat by two which are clearly drawn from real life; “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” in which a young Vietnamese-Australian writer hosts his father while at a writing workshop in Iowa, and “The Boat,” in which a boatload of Vietnamese refugees flee the country after the fall of Saigon, just as Le’s own parents did in the late 1970s, with Le himself a one-year-old baby.
I was prepared to love Le for the fact that he didn’t simply write what he knows, but it’s ironic that “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” clearly the book’s most autobiographical story, is also its best. From there it leaps straight into “Cartagena,” a story about a child assassin in Colombia, and while it feels authentic enough – laced with Latin slang and capturing what I imagine to be the filth and corruption and hopelessness of a Colombian metropolis – it felt somehow obvious; like writing a Mongolian story about a horse nomad or an Australian story about a jackaroo. Crime and corruption is all foreigners know about what is probably a large and complex nation, and crime and corruption is what Le gives us. Stereotype is too strong a word, because Le brings the same skill to “Cartagena” as he does to all his other stories; I believed in the characters, and the situation, and their reactions to it, but I could never shake the feeling that while I, as an Australian, found it to be believable, a Colombian would instantly recognise it as the work of an outsider.
“Cartagena” is thankfully the worst example of that, because for the rest of the book Le is on firmer ground; “Meeting Elise” is set in New York; “Halfhead Bay” is a Wintonesque high school story in an Australian fishing town (which presents its own problems, but never mind); “Hiroshima” is fairly short and told from a child’s perspective in any case; and “Tehran Calling” is set in Iran but features an American protagonist.
These are all good stories; perhaps not as great as the first one, but all worth reading. And in any case, I’d rather read an author who attempts to write about other places and cultures than someone like, well, Tim Winton, who is undoubtedly a brilliant author but ends up writing variations on a theme. Nam Le is well on the way to carving out a future for himself in the Australian literary pantheon alongside greats such as Winton and Carey and Keneally. It pleases me as a reader – partly because it can grow so tiresome, as a 20-something, to spend so long working your way through the 20th century canon – to identify a writer destined for great things, whom I can read from the very beginning of his career and watch develop. I can only imagine what Nam Le’s bibliography will look like when he and I are both in our 60s.
(Although having said that, The Boat was published five and a half years ago and he’s done nothing since then and there are no hints of anything in the works, so who knows?)