Such a Lovely Little War is a remarkable graphic novel that engages both heart and head, and Truong’s artwork provides an abstracted realism that perfectly reinforces both the viewpoint of a six year-old, and the edge-softening effect of memory. Providing a unique look into the early years of the Vietnam War, Such a Lovely Little War is not to be missed… go get it.
Marcelino Truong’s Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961 – 63 (Arsenal Pulp Press, translated from the French by David Homel), is a brilliantly executed memoir of the early years of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam from a truly unique perspective. Truong’s father, Khanh, is a former South Vietnamese diplomat, while his mother, Yvette, is a Frenchwoman, and he spent the first several years of his childhood growing up in the outskirts of Washington, D.C., where his father served as Cultural Attaché for the South Vietnamese Embassy. In 1961, Truong’s father was recalled to Saigon to serve as the director of the Vietnam News Agency and official English translator for President Ngo Dinh Diem, taking with him his wife, and his three children, of which Marcelino was the youngest.
Told from the perspective of the breast-obsessed, pre-pubescent Truong via the memories and research of the fifty-something Truong of the 2010s, Such a Lovely Little War is as much an intimate family story as it is a tale of the beginnings of the Vietnam War, and Truong walks that fine line with tremendous skill and grace. The adult narrator provides knowing insight into both family dynamics and Vietnamese politics while the child that he was in the early 1960s always retains the perspective and voice the 4-6 year-old he was. Guns, warplanes, and aircraft carriers are incredibly cool to the boy, yet still cast long foreshadows for the reader as the author paints an incredible picture of a privileged family living on the brink of a war that will destroy the world as they know it.
Truong also shines a much-needed light on the history of Vietnam in the early and mid-twentieth century, revealing a people divided and driven by religion, class, and ideology that in many ways made both sides of the conflict enthusiastic Cold War proxies for US and Soviet/Chinese geopolitics. I was especially pleased to see the contemporarily (in)famous, but today largely unknown, Madame Nhu (Tran Le Xuan) play a prominent role in Truong’s tale. The sensuous, feminist, traditionalist, militant, power hungry Madame was larger than life, and exerted a profound influence on her brother-in-law Diem and on the politics and culture of South Vietnam, particularly after the abortive 1962 coup attempt by a small group of South Vietnamese officers. Truong also notes that Madame and her time became the inspiration for the original Star Trek episode “A Private Little War,” which earned him a great many points with this correspondent.
As much as Such a Lovely Little War gives some wonderful details about this usually ignored period of Vietnamese history, the story works because at its core it remains a family memoir. As Vietnam starts to fall apart so does Truong’s family, despite the welcome addition of a new baby sister. His mother suffers from undiagnosed bi-polar disorder, which the stresses of her new life in Saigon only exacerbate. In the middle of all of this are Truong and his siblings, who are aware of the tidal forces pulling at their family and their world around them, but not yet old enough to really understand them, and remain very recognizable middle-class kids who are far more likely to react to things as adventures than trials. By the time Truong is done, the reader feels like he has become a part of his family, and is rooting for all of them, perhaps especially Yvette who comes across as a remarkable woman forced to live with a condition she doesn’t even know she has. Truong’s love for his parents is clear, and infuses every page of the book, and the reader can’t help but fall a bit in love with them too.
Such a Lovely Little War is a remarkable graphic novel that engages both heart and head, and Truong’s artwork provides an abstracted realism that perfectly reinforces both the viewpoint of a six year-old, and the edge-softening effect of memory. Providing a unique look into the early years of the Vietnam War, Such a Lovely Little War is not to be missed and is currently available from your local comic shop and booksellers everywhere. Go get it.