Reviewed: Anam, André Dao, Hamish Hamilton
In André Dao’s rigorous and masterful debut novel Anam, a Vietnamese Australian man attempts to write the story of his grandfather and, in turn, the cultural memory of Vietnam’s expansive diaspora. This enormous task is focused through a fact of the author’s own biography: the 10 years his Catholic intellectual grandfather spent imprisoned—without trial or charge—in Chi Hoa prison by the Communist Party of Vietnam in the 1980s, after his defection from the Viet Minh. But what begins as a straightforward doctoral thesis anchored by his grandfather’s oral accounts soon becomes a nest of ethical and philosophical quandaries, which force the narrator to confront the elusiveness of memory and the very project of representation.
But Anam is more than just historical oral accounts—Dao is equally interested in the process of researching and remembering, as well as the act of solidifying those remembrances into print. Dao illustrates the arduous nature of this process by focusing on its disruptions: the way interview subjects evade simple characterisation, start coughing, offer morsels of information that unspool into endless lines of inquiry. There are countless elisions: millions of dead whose names remain lost, significant figures faded into obscurity. The narrator becomes confused by his grandfather’s opaqueness—namely his decision to forgive the cruelty of his captors, and his uncomfortable complicity as an ‘active propagandist’ who ‘collaborated with the French and then the Americans’.
Then there’s the matter of the disruptions that the narrator comes up against in his own life, which comprise some of Anam’s headiest sections. As he writes his thesis, his partner Lauren becomes a key, probing character. Of the narrator’s attempts to align his grandfather’s experiences to those of Nelson Mandela, she asks: ‘Why do you feel as if you need to compare him to others? To the great and the famous […] what difference does it make to you, to your life, to your real family living in the here and now?’ She also questions the ‘fundamentally patriarchal’ decision to obsess over his grandfather instead of the wife he left behind to raise seven children.
This verbal parrying leads the narrator to mull over his position: why does he choose to pursue some facts but not others? Can anything he writes ever be disentangled from his place as someone who did not experience this trauma first-hand, but feels its intergenerational effects? And what of his position as a settler on stolen land, benefiting from his family’s loss?
To write someone else’s story is an active act of displacement, a re-arrangement of truth and memory; this tension leaks into Dao’s clear-eyed, yet anguished prose. In one scene, the narrator recounts his experience as an immigration lawyer for refugees detained on Manus, where he spins his client’s harrowing account into a ‘soft and beautiful’ narrative, using labyrinthine metaphors drawn from Kafka. He comes to realise that this act of writing abstractifies the client’s experiences: ‘I had thought it would bring out the tragedy and absurdity of his situation, and the flimsiness and cruelty of the system that detained him, but even then, reading what I had written made him feel like his life had been stolen all over again.’
In this sense, Anam reminded me most of Ben Lerner’s similarly-autofictive 10:04, where the self-interrogating protagonist continuously circled ‘the distance … between art and the mundane’. Dao’s narrator similarly struggles with the gaps between his representations and all they cannot capture, and the unknowable interiorities of those around us. But these quests for truth never feel hopeless. It’s through its autofictive form that Anam reaches what W.G. Sebald calls ‘poetic truth’—what I’m striving for is authenticity; none of it is real—which reaches its apotheosis in an imaginary structure the narrator creates for his daughter. He fashions his grandfather’s life into ‘a house of many rooms’ which store all his memories at once. Each room is filled with malleable qualities of light; a slight shift results in a new insight, revealing something the audience can either judge or turn away from. Through this challenging tapestry of perspectives and memories, space-time is transcended. History’s thorniness becomes alive on the page.
The novel’s title is the narrator’s term for a Vietnam that exists in memory, a modified version of the colonial name ‘Annam’, with ‘Anamites’ being those who are ‘so good at remembering that they remember things that never happened, and things that are best forgotten’. It’s a double entendre of sorts, also speaking to ‘anamnesis’: the Catholic act of remembering Christ’s sacrifice that creates salvation. But as Anam’s narrator notes, the relevant verse in Luke 22:19 that mentions this remembrance is itself suspect, believed by some scholars to be an interpolation. ‘So where does that leave us?’ Dao asks, ‘I suppose it is still a matter of faith: do I believe in the magic properties of remembering, whatever the provenance of the memories?’ As a reader awed by the enormity of life—memorialised, imagined and elided in this sprawling book—I certainly do.