Love Like Hate

The poet Linh Dinh has written a novel.  It is a poet’s novel.  Listen to the title: Love Like Hate.  How has that not been a proverb for 500 years?

The novel’s most attractive character is such language, dealing from the old Anglo-Saxon and cherry-picking gaudy gems from all the other registers.  Nobody talks like that and I can listen to it forever.

If Linh started cranking out novels one would speak of P.G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler and Henry James, the writers you read to learn the chord changes in English.  I don’t think he will become a novelist because you don’t read this one for the genre conventions.

Every character does have an arc, a mild one.  There are a mother and daughter and the men in their lives, all in Saigon since about 1950.   They go through a lot and notice it somewhat.

If you want a plot summary, god help you.  The life of the book is in noodling around like Tom Robbins and in marvelous cameos, with their right names, of contemporary Vietnamese authors.

Let Wikipedia sort it out.  I have known  and read Linh Dinh for twenty years and want to tell you what he’s up to.  Linh Dinh is a disillusionist and a Vietnamese nationalist.

Linh Dinh is here to tell you that life in the United States is not rich and Vietnamese culture is nothing much.   He mocks superstition and  insists that the observable daily round is greed and lust directed by stupidity.

As he writes he teaches a patriotic creed that you aren’t going to get from the loudspeakers in the Socialist Republic, from foreigners who feel sorry, from exiles who yearn, and travelers who gawk.

It is the way of thinking that motivates my work.  It is what is interesting about Viet Nam.

The Vietnamese at home are more gangsters struggling over a state.  Vietnamese Americans are more Italians, Napolitani and paisan such as I grew up with New Haven, dropped into the black and white race war here.

What is interesting is a perspective from a solidly successful anti-colonial struggle that was nonetheless a disaster.  Irony right down to the smallest details of daily life.

That quality of history is why I call myself a Vietnamese nationalist as well as a Southern liberal and a French republican.  It has powered  Linh Dinh through a career of solid intellectual accomplishment which we have made as accessible as we can through his  Wikivietlit entry.

That accomplishment is characterized by Linh’s discomfort and ferocious competence in both English and Vietnamese, by his Poundian advocacy of the new and devotion to his colleagues, surging protean productivity, by compassion, by anger.

Since writing the novel he has been roaming the streets of the United States, taking pictures of the abject poor who live there, the working poor who walk there, and the illusions we post on the walls and in the shop windows.  Take a look at his State of the Union.

from State of the Union

The work of Linh Dinh for the common reader is a pedagogy in realism, in life for most people most of the time.   The Vietnamese-language author he most reminds me of in subject, intellect and compassion is the comic novelist Nguyen Ngoc Ngan.

Linh is after all a literary man and Ngan is emcee of Paris By Night so I don’t expect either of them ever to take that comparison seriously.   The Vietnamese author in English whose concerns seem to me closest to Linh’s is Bich Minh Nguyen.

Her essays and her novel Short Girls come out of Linh’s Saigon, in the flint tones of a Balzacian Middle West, with characters scrambling for the money and love they need in the grip of illusions about what they want.

Bich does write in generic convention, with strong arcs, so I expect she will crank out novels if she wants to.  What she and all literary professionals can get from Linh, the amateur, the translator, the poet is what the whole world of trans-Atlantic moderns got from Pound.

Linh is the man who knows what it all means, where it all comes from, what everyone is saying, who is stupid and who is smart.   I think he gets some things drastically wrong, as Pound did.

But you can go to school with him and make up your own mind.  I really think you should read the poems and short stories and the translations and the criticism and look at the photos but if you are in a hurry it is all in Love Like Hate.

Dan Duffy


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