Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63 by Marcelino Truong
Translated by David Homel
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016
March 18th, 2017
In this graphic memoir, which was originally published in French in 2012, Marcelino Truong writes about his family’s move to Saigon early in his childhood, during the earlier part of the Vietnam War: they lived there from 1961 to 1963. Truong was born in Manila, after which his family lived in the DC suburbs, which is where the book opens, in 1961: we see Truong (Marco, in the book) and his brother Domi playing with neighborhood kids as their sister Mireille plays with her Hula Hoop. Not that it’s all idyllic: the Truong brothers are always cast as the enemy when they’re playing war games (Indians in Cowboys and Indians, “the Commies” against the GIs in the Korean War). Truong’s father, who is Vietnamese, works at the Vietnamese Embassy, but then, in 1961, he gets word that he’s being called back to Saigon. His French wife is not happy about it, but there isn’t anything to be done. We see the family’s trip to Vietnam, with an initial journey by boat to Saint-Malo, France, where Truong and his siblings and their mom visit her parents before Truong’s dad joins them and they all fly from Paris to Saigon, and then we see their life in Saigon, where Truong’s father ends up working as President Diệm’s interpreter.
I like the art in this book, most of which is either red-toned or blue-toned, with some pages or spreads in more vivid/naturalistic color, including the opening page showing the Truong family in Washington DC, pink cherry blossoms blooming against the blue sky, and I like the story, too. Truong’s narrative mixes his family’s story and details from daily life with sections about the larger political/military context for what was happening: we get a recap of events in Vietnam from 1954 onwards leading up to where things stand in 1961, which I appreciated: I’m not sure how much about this period I ever really learned in school, and if I did learn about it, I apparently didn’t remember it that well. The balance of the personal and everything else worked for me: I liked reading about the Truong siblings listening to their parents argue and about Catholicism in Vietnam and about the 1962 attack on Saigon’s Presidential Palace and about Truong’s mom telling the Vietnamese teenager hired to help around the house that “You don’t put nuoc mam (fish sauce) in boeuf bourguignon” (62). Truong writes about the fear and anxiety of being in a place at war, but also about the everyday things, like how he and his brother caught crickets and kept them in boxes, or how Chu Ba, a Vietnamese man also hired to help around the house/with the kids, used to take them to the outdoor swimming pool at the Cercle Sportif de Saigon, or to the movies. Truong writes, too, about his mother’s bipolar disorder, which made things at home even more unpredictable than they already were. And Truong writes about leaving Saigon and moving to London in 1963, before the coup d’etat in which President Diệm was killed.
This is a really satisfying graphic memoir: I’m looking forward to the English translation of the sequel, which is about Truong’s life in London between 1963 and 1975.