Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Scents of Memory

[Review by Paula Tohline Calhoun, entitled The Scents of Memory, November 17, 2012
[Review Source:]

I begin by saying that I do not know the correct way in which to refer to the esteemed author of “Flesh,” the first novel of Mr. Khanh Hà.   In some Asian nations,  on seeing this name one would refer to the gentleman as Mr. Khanh, as the family name is listed first and the given name second in those countries.  I noticed that in the dedication he includes the names Hà T. Khoa, and Hà T. Duy. Because of that, please accept my apologies, Mr. Khanh, if  I refer to you incorrectly from here on in.  It is meant respectfully.

The book opens with two epigraphs, one from Claude Farrère:  Yes, I am no longer a man, no longer a man at all.  But I have not yet become anything else.” The second from Mr. Arthur Rimbaud, which in light of the outcome of Mr. Khanh’s exquisite book is the perfect introduction, and one to which you will return when you have finished the last page of the book:

“When the world is reduced to a single dark wood for our four eyes’ astonishment a beach for two faithful children, a musical house for one pure sympathy – I shall find you.”

For the purposes of my review I add my own two epigraphs:

“I’ve found a different way to scent the air, already it’s a by-word for despair.”
~~Andrew Motion

“Perhaps the old monks were right when they tried to root love out; perhaps the poets are right when they try to water it.  It is a blood-red flower, with the color of sin; but there is always the scent of a god about it.”
~~Olive Schreiner

Flesh begins with a brief prologue by the storyteller, Tài, who gives a bit of background in his “twilight years.”  The twilight years are unknown, because not knowing how long our protagonist lives, we can only count up from the year 1896, where his real story begins when he was a boy.  It is hard to describe this book as a “coming of age” tale, because it is so much more. I would rather refer to it as a the story of a young man-boy who grows up in stature, but was born already “of age,” with an innate understanding that life is changeable, surprising, disappointing, and wonderful, all at once.

The story takes place in Annam – the earlier name of Viet Nam, in and around Hanoi. Tài lives with his mother and younger brother, blessed to live in a family that is bound not only by flesh but by love.  That union is all the more important and necessary because the story begins with the gruesome beheading of Tài’s father along with others of his father’s “gang” in full sight of Tài, his mother, and his little brother – as well as the families of the other victims and some assorted curious onlookers.  Beheading is the standard method of execution in Annam, and despite its likely swift and merciful end, it is nevertheless something difficult to witness.

There is much that we, as modern Americans, would consider unfathomably brutal in this story that Tài tells us, but the telling is not egregious nor overly graphic.  Reading this book made me aware of how little I know about so much of the world.  The world of Annam – just as the French Catholics are beginning to make inroads into the Annamese society, thereby dividing village against village – is one of which I regrettably have little knowledge.  As you read the book, one becomes aware of how much you want to know, and how much we are all alike, but for our geographical placement on the globe. A French Roman Catholic, Father Danton, a  fluent speaker of Annamese, is a prominent character near the beginning of the book.  He serves as a way of introducing the people of the villages he visits not only to his Catholic God, but to the ways of the foreign, western world.  He is quite a sympathetic character (on the whole), because he respects the people to whom he ministers, and does his best to help those he can. However, it is difficult to dispel the feeling that the devastating introduction of smallpox to the countries of East Asia must have had something to do with the invasion of the western world.  The fact that smallpox vaccine was available was little help, because at that time it was meted out by the French only to those villages who became Catholic.  I could find some sympathy for Father Danton in that he did not agree with the policy, but lost some when he would not work against his prevailing authority.

Both Tài and his brother fell victim to smallpox.  Tài survived, his brother did not.  During this time we are introduced to scents that are so much a part of this book.  Dead eels are placed under the cots of those suffering smallpox in hopes of warding the disease away.  The scent is almost unbearable, except the ones who love those who are suffering.

Before learning of his brother’s death, Tài takes it upon himself to look for the head of his father’s body, that it can be buried with the body they transported home after the beheading, and the body of his little brother, who have been buried in soggy, inauspicious ground behind their hut, unsuitable for a happy afterlife for them or their heirs.

On his journey Tài meets people of all sorts.  They are the same people who populate the entire world – the kind, those who would teach, those who love, those who lust, the self-centered and cruel, the modest and frightened, and those who would hoard riches as a way of living.  The French Government which licenses and rules the sale of liquor and opium, and encourage the profligate (and lucrative, for them) use of both, also plays a large part in this story.  The use of opium in the crowded opium dens brings out from the pages the smell of the smoke from the pipes – the smoke of the “quality” opium, with a sweet caramel odor, and the vomitous smell of the dregs of the opium, scraped from the pipes and sold to the poor addicts who can afford nothing else – which is sold illegally an punishable by death.

Tài has the wonderful pleasure of falling in love.  On his way to Hanoi, he is taken in by the beauty of a young woman who travels with him by boat on his way to Hanoi.  Once there, to work out his time of servitude in Hanoi, (to two different masters – one indifferent and sometimes cruel, the other benevolent) – a time spent paying for a suitable burial place for his father and brother, found by a geomancer – a “seer” of a type who can divine, through thorough search, places of burial that can change the fortunes of the heirs of the deceased buried in those places.  While indentured in Hanoi  he falls in love again.

The end of the novel brings a twist which gives the following words from the flyleaf of the book a very clear meaning: “The title, (Flesh), refers to temptation – the temptation of the flesh.  But it refers equally to the obligations of kinship, the connections between us and those to whom we are related, even if we would choose not to be.”

I close with two quotations – one from the first line of the chapter, “Moths to the Flame:”  I woke to the faint aroma of cinnamon that hung in the air.”  Other than illuminating Mr. Khanh’s use of scents as an integral part of his novel, this particular line would not be significant without the last sentence in the same chapter:  I could smell the river, the damp silty smell still clinging to my skin, and I could smell her.

How much of our memories, personal and collective, are stimulated by the scent of life around us.

It is my honor to have been able to review this book by Mr. Khanh Hà, the first book of his that I hope is one of many to come.  I cannot encourage you enough to read it, and savor all the morsels, and gather every scent that rise up from every page.

I could never say enough. . .

[Image Source: Rose Photograph by Paula Tohline Calhoun]


  1. Thank you very much for posting this review. I do hope that it pleased you, because your book has been a blessing to me. I so hope that your book does well! I am also flattered that you chose one of my photographs to include with the review. As you undoubtedly have figured out, photography is one of my passions.

    I wish you all of the very best in your writing endeavors, and of course, most of all, the abundance of enough. . .

  2. Thank you for your kind words, Paula. It's such a happenstance that I came to know you, and this acquaintance is something I do cherish as an author and, hopefully, as a friend for a long time.