Thursday, December 6, 2018

Alan Cumyn

Alan Cumyn is the award-winning author of several wide-ranging and often wildly different novels. His historical novels The Sojourn and The Famished Lover chronicle the First World War and Great Depression experiences of artist Ramsay Crome. His human rights novels, Man of Bone and Burridge Unbound, follow a torture victim through survival and post-trauma. Losing It is a darkly funny and truly twisted novel about madness, while his Owen Skye books for kids–The Secret Life of Owen Skye, After Sylvia and Dear Sylvia— hilariously trace the calamitous trials of childhood and the pangs of early love. Cumyn’s young adult novel Tilt is a funny, sexy exploration of a teenaged boy’s obsessions as he lives through an impossibly absurd time of life. All Night, a literacy project, follows a young artsy couple through a stormy night of hard truths and romantic dreams. And Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend brings a touch of Kafka to the previously ordered love life of a high school senior who has no idea what might fly out of the primordial past. His latest novel, North to Benjamin, is a psychological thriller that sees a young boy, Edgar, dragged north by his unstable mother, testing his formidable survival skills.

Recently I asked Cumyn about what he was reading. His reply:
I have been living in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) for the last couple of months and waited till I got here before reading a few of the classics. Everyone references Graham Greene's The Quiet American, and now I can see why – the rich atmosphere of the city in the 1950s, the brilliant way the book encapsulates so many central themes of the country in the love triangle between the aging Brit Fowler, the brash young American Pyle, and the beautiful local flower Phuong. Complicating all of their lives is the seamy politics of the place and of the day. So much has changed in the city in the more than 60 years since Greene finished the book, but you can still walk up and down Rue Catinat (now called Dong Khoi – Total Revolution), you can still sit on the sidewalk veranda outside the Intercontinental Hotel where Greene and so many of his ex-pat friends hung out, and I'm living an easy walk from the site of the old Da Kao Bridge, where Pyle meets his untimely end.

Far more recent is Viet Thanh Nguyen's 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer, which evokes the Saigon of 1975 especially, as the southern government is crumbling and so many are fleeing the arrival of the Communist forces. The protagonist is a spy for the North, sent to the United States to keep tabs on potential plotters abroad, and Greene's work is acknowledged in the novel. I can't help wondering if there is also a debt to recent accounts of the most famous spy of the Vietnam war, Pham Xuan An, who worked as a reporter for Time, Reuters and others while feeding information to the North. His story is captured in Larry Berman's 2007 Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An. The character of An who emerges from Berman's biography is far more likable than the spy in The Sympathizer. An managed to fool so many people, yet remained friends with them to an incredible degree. As the army he sympathized with came pouring into the city in 1975, An was running around trying to help as many friends as possible – Americans and South Vietnamese – evade the chaos all knew was coming. When George W. Bush visited Vietnam in 2006, An’s son was an official translator, a living symbol of nations getting past the bitterness of war.

It's an extraordinary thing to be able to come to a city like this and stay for a while, and read such stirring and complex accounts of what has happened here in the not-so-distant past.
Visit Alan Cumyn's website.

--Marshal Zeringue