Book Review by Raymond M. Wong
Pham, Andrew. Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam. New York: Picador, 1999. Print
Andrew Pham paints a vivid picture of Vietnam: the food ("We wolf down our plebeian meal of catfish, rice, pickled firecracker eggplant with shrimp paste, and steamed string beans from his garden"), some not so appetizing native dishes ("their chopsticks hovering above plates of boiled gizzards curly like cashews, pig hearts sliced like truffles, intestines chopped up like rigatoni"); the people ("You can tell a Vietnamese by the way he wears his sandals. Is the stem firmly held between the toes? Or does the ball of the heel drag beyond the sandal? Do the sandals flap like loose tongues when he walks?"); the poverty ("They walk to the highway and ride a three-wheeled Tuk-tuk to Hanoi four days a week. Rice-girl makes her own rice dumplings and Papaya-girl picks her fruit from the family orchard. Neither has enough merchandise for a stall at the market or makes enough to pay for a permit to sell on the street, so they go door-to-door").
Pham has a talent for visual description and he brings the landscape of Vietnam into sharp focus. This is the strength of the book. We are with him as he bicycles through Vietnam as a Viet-kieu (how natives condescendingly refer to foreign Vietnamese) and we come to know the people (cruel to kind) he encounters.
The flashbacks to his family, particularly scenes with his overbearing father, his sister (Chi), and a girlfriend from his past are well-rendered.
Though this memoir has many strengths, the narrative is distant at times, as if the narrator is afraid to let the reader in too close. Despite the fact the story is told in first-person, I didn't feel fully engaged. There were times when I wasn't sure what was at stake in this journey, and I wanted to know more about the meaning of this trip.