Eric Nguyen reviews Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History by Phong Nguyen. In his newest book, Phong Nguyen reimagines history as we know it by asking: what if certain historical figures had chosen a different path?
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In the introduction to Phong Nguyen’s second book, Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History (Queen’s Ferry Press), the fictional, nameless editor describes how he stumbles upon the Textbook of Alternate History. A computer technician, he’s assigned to fix a damaged computer with a USB drive labeled “HIC_SVNT_LEONES.” Soon, he discovers terabytes of images and cryptic texts: “more than two billion words, with half a million maps and timelines…meticulously organized and scrupulously annotated chapters…bits of data appearing one page at a time on the screen, complete with notes, figures, and discussion questions.”
After nights of obsession, he discovers the truth of the files: they’re an alternate history of the world, “volume after volume of every conceivable version of [every] historical event[.]” Eager to meet the author, to find out if he’s a genius or a madman, the editor tries to seek him out, but in a twist of events, he finds the inventor has committed suicide in a library with a final textbook entry scrawled on the walls in blood. Dejected, the editor is unable to find meaning in these texts and decides to present them to readers.
In a way, the editor represents many of us: given the events of history, what are we to make of it? With this introduction, Nguyen situates readers as both consumers and detectives of history: we must ask what has happened and what does it mean? Implicit in this is to ask what else could have happened. Nguyen’s collection starts with the same question many historians ask: what if? What if Hitler became an artist instead of the leader of the Nazi party? What if Ho Chi Minh stayed in the US? And indeed, we are given re-imagining of these lives.
In “Hitler Goes to Art School,” Adolf Hitler is a struggling art student at the Vienna Academy. Traveling to buy a new coat, a military recruiter stops and asks him to join, to which Hitler replies, “But I’m just an artist, and no good at combat,” dodging his real-life fate. Similarly, in “Ho Chi Minh in Harlem,” a young, idealistic Ho Chi Minh talks to a civil rights activist Marcus Garvey, who tells him “If you are looking for equality in America, then you may as well go home.”
These stories work because, in reality, they had the possibility of fruition. Hitler once applied to art school. Ho Chi Minh stayed in Harlem in 1912. Nguyen, like alternate historians, maps a world where different decisions were made, and through this process, imagines a world, reality, and history quite different from ours. If Hitler went to art school, the Second World War would not have been the human catastrophe that it became. If Ho Chi Minh stayed in the United States—to pursue a frozen dinner business venture, out of all things—Vietnam might have stayed colonized. If Einstein never signed onto the Manhattan project, the atomic bomb might have failed and we’d live in a world where “all nations…work together to prevent the development of nuclear weapons[.]” Through these stories, Nguyen asks readers to consider our own history and its meaning in today’s world.
But this is where the similarities between Nguyen’s book and the work of historians end. Whereas historians might see alternate history as an exercise in imagination, Nguyen’s book is more of an exercise in human empathy. What makes Nguyen’s book different from history is that he de-mythologizes historical figures and makes them human, not merely figures or players in history. This is perhaps most evident in Nguyen’s stories about religious figures. In “Jesus, Unforsaken,” Jesus finds himself in an existential crisis when he isn’t made a martyr. In “Siddhartha Remains in His Father’s Palace,” the prince who would have been the founder of Buddhism gives up his spiritual quest after a personal epiphany: looking into his infant son’s eyes, he realizes “what soul was to be found, could be found here; what immortality was to be found, could be found here…”
These stories are at times heartbreaking, not only because of their historical context and implied meanings, but also because of Nguyen’s precise and innovative use of language that links historical figures with human emotions and human frailty, reminding readers that, while these figures might had indelible effects on human lives, they were quite like us in their miseries, their joys, their fears.
Describing Toussaint L’Ouverture as prisoner, Nguyen writes, “There was a thinness to him that previously I had only thought possible in certain kinds of fish—where the bones are soft and flexible, and the flesh is silvery, the last vein of oil in his body beading up to the surface, waiting to be evaporated.” In “The Great Pyre of Egypt,” Nguyen describes the sensation of death from the point of view of Khufu who lies alive in his coffin: “He could apprehend, finally, the ubiquity of death, the awful stillness of it, the self and all its notions immorality become yet another soulless object….it was the most harrowing thing the Pharaoh had ever known. Yet he clung to it for a long moment as though it were an amulet warding off evil.” With these stories, Nguyen re-imagines the players of history not as text, but as human flesh and human bones with human mortality.
Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History is a playful yet serious examination of history. At the same time, it is weirdly magical and wildly inventive, both on the conceptual and the language level. In short, it is unlike any other short story collection being published today.
Eric Nguyen has a degree in sociology from the University of Maryland along with a certificate in LGBT Studies. He is currently an MFA candidate at McNeese State University and lives in Louisiana.
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