To be beautiful, you must be seen

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Migration novel, queer memoir, book of the dead: Ocean Vuong’s prose debut “Auf Erden sind wir kurz grandios”.

The hymns that rush ahead have long since become an international choir. In this country, Saša Stanišić has mixed with those who sing the praise of Ocean Vuong’s prose debut. He is thus in the best company of colleagues such as Vuong’s New York mentor Ben Lerner, the Jamaican Man Book Prize winner Marlon James, the Cheyenne narrator Tommy Orange or the French writer Édouard Louis. Until two years ago, when Ocean Vuong received the high-ranking English T. S. Eliot Prize for his poetry collection “Night Sky with Exit Wounds”, his name would only have attracted the attention of initiates.

Ocean Vuong, born in 1988 as Vinh Quoc Vuong in Saigon and arrived in the USA in 1990 via a refugee camp in the Philippines, was both a late and early developer. Due to an inherited dyslexia, it was difficult for him to read until he was eleven years old. Ten years later, however, he studied English at Brooklyn College and, after winning a few small prizes, made it onto an LGBT recommendation list of the American Library Association with his first small volume of poetry “Burning” (2010).

Since then, he has repeatedly digged up the elements of his biography: growing up with the Vietnamese grandmother and the half-Vietnamese mother, the daughter of an American GI, in Hartford, Connecticut, both post-traumatic legacies to which he also contributed greatly, and of course his homosexuality. “We are briefly grandiose on earth”, which on its way across the Atlantic between America and England first lost the genre name Roman, but found it again in Germany, collects these biographical ruins in all their monstrosity.

The uncanny illumination of individual moments

From the breath of a Great American Novel, which another enthusiast, the British author Max Porter, claims to have recognized in Vuong’s book, this jagged memorial site has almost nothing. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”, as the original is called after a poem from “Night Sky”, is suitable as the epitome of national literature in the footsteps of Mark Twain or William Faulkner, at best through a contemporary hybridity: that of cultural affiliation, sexual identity and the oscillation between poetry and prose, narrative and essay with many kinds of citation drift.

It is the work of a poet, not that of an epicist, above all through the brightly illuminated evocation of moments. In his fragments of memory, which do not care much about chronology, Vuong seeks less the red thread with the help of which he connects the stations of his origin into a coherent whole. Rather, he focuses on the uncanny illumination of individual moments, which draw their tension from the fact that they illuminate each other.

The first-person narrator writes to his illiterate mother

The novel of migration, coming-out memoir and book of the dead for the drug-addicted first lover Trevor, who is dependent on the painkiller Oxycontin, and the schizophrenic grandmother Lan cross each other. Vuong does not reveal where the border between what he has actually experienced and what he has confirmed orally runs from the colourfully imagined in his memory to the invented. In its outer form, it is a letter from the first-person narrator called Little Dog to his illiterate mother Hong or, in English, Rose. So it is addressed to someone who cannot recognize himself in it. Where Rose looks into a blind mirror, Little Dog looks behind the glass wall that separates her from a liberated existence. But his grandfather Paul also comes alive. In 1944 he landed with the Allies in Normandy, on Omaha Beach, and volunteered for the Vietnam War, during which he met Lan, who was still trapped in a life as a prostitute for American soldiers.

The book is divided into three large fragmented chapters

The rough, often brutal and sometimes overly polished beauty of the book is only accessible to patient reading. As carefully as sentence by sentence is worked out here and constantly reflected upon, it also wants to be read. Ocean Vuong himself has named a typical Asian literary narrative structure called kishotenketsu as a model. In contrast to the five-act structure of classical western drama or the three-act structure of Hollywood cinema, it obeys a widespread four-act structure. But this is not far off either.

The book is divided into three large, fragmented chapters, the fourth of which, slightly contrasted, is at best a kind of epilogue. However, it obeys the idea of the plot without real conflict, which forms a characteristic trait of kishotenketsu. In its associative construction, it combines fleeting motifs and leitmotifs that have lasted to the end, such as the life of the wandering monarch butterflies in a stream of large and small metamorphoses.

A flare-up of beauty

Towards the end he swells up almost visionary. Vuong sees “monkeys, moose, cows, dogs, butterflies, buffalos” racing towards an abyss that promises both destruction and resurrection. It is a moment in the history of creation, in which the short human life, grandiose even in misery, takes place, which the title of the book addresses. A flare-up of beauty that, like the sunset, like survival, exists only on the edge of its own disappearance. “To be beautiful, you must first be seen – but when you are seen, you may also be hunted.

Sentences that seem overwritten, sometimes precocious, sententious, pretentious, and then again held in check by a rare ability to balance physical experience and intellectual refraction. The blows of the mother who tries to get the family through with a job in the nail studio, her attempts at appeasement and love. Later, the increasingly violent tenderness that 14-year-old Little Dog exchanges as a holiday worker on a tobacco plantation with Trevor, the owner’s grandson. An awakening in his own body that triggers a process of self-recognition that also encloses his loneliness between cultures. Ocean Vuong can describe sex with a polished toughness that exorcises even the most blunt scenes from any embarrassment – unless you find it strange that at the moment of the highest lust a word of the philosopher Simone Weil comes to his mind.

A group consumes the brain of a living macaque

“On earth we are grandiose for a moment”, the phenomenon of memory itself circles around all of this. “Ma,” he writes, “you once told me that memory is a decision. But if you were God, you’d know it’s a flood.” You can see how she must have overwhelmed him when, in remembrance of Trevor, he lined up incomplete sentences across pages like sentences falling out of a notebook. Between attempting to keep the involuntary of memory at bay and the need to incorporate it, this book goes a tightrope walk.

A particularly impressive scene describes a potency ritual bordering on cannibalism in which a group of Vietnamese men eats the brain of a living macaque. His scalpel-opened skull protrudes from the centre of a table under which he is tied. With a lot of alcohol and garlic, the group spoons him out until his movements slacken: “When all his memories have dissolved in the men’s bloodstream, the monkey dies.”

The German translation has a hard time capturing the tightness and elasticity of Ocean Vuong’s sentences. It sounds more cumbersome than the original. On the whole, however, she conveys a reliable impression of this world engraved in a captivatingly rich English, in whose interior it rumbles. Linguistically, by regularly measuring herself against the possibilities of Vietnamese. And culturally, by not only looking for her role models in Roland Barthes or Joan Didion, but by opening her windows far to the east.

The motto, for example, comes from Qiu Miaojin, the first Chinese woman from Taiwan to openly celebrate her homosexuality in literature. Even before her epistolary novel “Letzte Worte vom Montmartre” was published, she committed suicide in Paris in 1995 at the age of 26. “Let me see,” Vuong quotes her words addressed to a lover, “whether I can create a center for you – with this little floe of my words and my life as the foundation stone. In the case of Ocean Vuong and his mother this succeeded in a peculiar way.
Ocean Vuong: On earth we are briefly grandiose. From the American English of Anne-Kristin Mittag. Hanser Verlag, Munich 2019. 237 pages, 22 €.

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Mette Frederiksen is a The Washington Newsday correspondent. With her coverage of general science, NASA and the interface between technology and society, Frederiksen has been in the Science Desk's Technology Beat since joining Washington Newsday in 2018.

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