REVIEW by Willard Manus
nineteen-year-old hero of Khanh Has latest novel, THE DEMON WHO
PEDDLED LONGING (Underground Voices), is aptly named. He could stand as
a symbol of his countrys tragic history: battered and suffering,
but tough, capable and resolute as well. Or, to paraphrase Hemingway,
defeated but not destroyed.
Ha, who was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for his 2010 debut novel, FLESH,
sets his compelling new novel in the heartland of Viet Nam: the delta
with its swift-running rivers, vast rice fields and jungles. Everything
here is lush, tangled, teeming with life and danger. The rains can become
torrential, flooding the fields with black, poisonous water, the fishing
hamlets often come under attack by Khmer Rouge pirates.
Nearly every character in Has book has been maimed in some way by
the long, brutal wars that Viet Nam has fought in recent years. Orphans
abound, rape victims and widows as well; many of the males have lost a
limb or even their eyesight. But not even blindness can crush the defiant
spirit of an aged fisherman we meet in THE DEMON; going on instinct and
memory, he manages to find his way to the rivers edge at midnight
and dig clams for a living.
Nam himself is one of those orphans, a young man with a mission, to find
the twin brothers who robbed, raped and murdered his sister. With all
the cunning of a fox, the tenacity of a vigilante, he pursues these killers
relentlessly, desperate for revenge, thirsty for blood. His own blood
is spilled more than once during the course of his dogged quest; he almost
dies of a shark-bite when he goes to the aid of those aboard a storm-battered
deed leads to the offer of a job: handyman and helper to a local Great
Master, a rich warlord who controls a sizable chunk of the delta.
Here Has tale turns gothic: Mr Big is paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair,
but he has a young beautiful wife, Li, whom he purchased from an impoverished
family. Jealous and impotent as Mr Big is, he allows Li to spend time
with Nam but for cynical, manipulative reasons.
Everything that occurs in THE DEMON WHO PEDDLED LONGING
jumps off the page, thanks to Has vivid and poetic prose, and to
his deep, intimate knowledge of the Vietnamese people. Ha not only knows
how they live and work, but what they love, fear, despise and hold dear.
Without a shred of sentimentality or falsity, he paints a memorable portrait
of Viet Nam, a country with a life-force that seemingly will never be