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Ru conjures love song out of chaos, pain

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This Quebec first novel is a powerful and engaging confluence of fiction, autobiography and memoir.

In French, Ru won the Governor-General's Award for fiction in 2010, followed by the Grand Prix at the Salon du Livre de Paris the same year, and several other awards in 2011. The novel is being translated into many languages; in English, nothing seems to have been lost, perhaps because Ru is itself in large part about translations literal and metaphorical, personal and geopolitical -- about the losses suffered as well as the gains achieved in a forced and many-faceted migration.

Long one of Canada's finest translators, Sheila Fischman is at her best here, beginning with her rendition of Vietnamese immigrant author Kim Thúy's epigraph, which alludes, richly, to the title's several meanings, evoking and foretelling the intents and the effects of Thúy's supple layering of several languages, histories and cultures:

In French, ru means a small stream and, figuratively, a flow, a discharge -- of tears, of blood, of money. In Vietnamese, ru means a lullaby, to lull.

In style and substance, this is a fitting description -- and a fine enactment -- of Thúy's poetics. Her distinctive fictional signature deftly incorporates the formal tactics of brief diary entries with those of prose poetry. She does all this with the gaze and idiom of both an observer and a participant, subject to recurring pain and privation, but never yielding to either.

For brief moments, Ru might seem to soothe readers, yes; but more often, sharp discharges of tears and blood flow as well.

Looking at once inward onto the ambiguities and tensions of her own troubled background as an emigrant and an immigrant, and outward onto the charged landscapes she has inherited and inhabited, Thúy has distilled her experience into a narrative form that, in its striving for moments of pure clarity, seems to redeem time itself, as good writing will.

Thúy opens Ru with reflections on her mother tongue and country, in her mother's home and heart in Vietnam. Thúy's family is both witness to and victims of the several wars between and among North and South, Communists and Americans, the privileged and the poor, Vietnamese and the old French aristocracy.

In short entries that read lyrically and poetically -- but also powerfully, pungently, and yet gently, dispassionately -- Ru blends politics and history, celebration and violence within a young girl's imaginative experience, as in the novel's opening passage:

"I came into the world during the Tet Offensive, in the early days of the Year of the Monkey, when the long chains of firecrackers draped in front of homes exploded polyphonically along with the sound of machine guns."

With taut conciseness edged and honed by incantatory repetition, the narrative soon follows Thúy on a familiar and harrowing boat trip with hundreds of other refugees, voyaging first to a refugee camp in Malaysia, and thence with her family to Quebec. There, the family finds its first refuge in Granby, where the kindness and generosity of schoolmates and workmates alike ease the difficult transition to Canadian life.

When Thúy herself grows up to have two children in Montreal, one autistic, her connections with her boys open another window for her onto the tensions in relationships within families and between cultures, and also onto the available meanings and resonances -- for her and for her family, in Canada as in Vietnam -- of love.

And that's where Ru begins and ends, its hybrid and enchanted voice conjuring a love song out of chaos and pain, singing and rilling its simplicities.

A Canadian literature scholar, Neil Besner is vice-president, research and international, at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 21, 2012 J9

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