The Alphabet of Vietnam

An extremely introspective book, Jack ponders the way of men, the intricacies of male-female relationships, and the ever lasting effects of war. Are these men evil, or did the war bring this about? We follow three main plotlines: Jack’s trip to the cabin, Jack’s present life of raising a young boy while getting to know a woman who may or may not have killed her husband, and, interlaced throughout the book, an alphabet of Vietnam that describes vividly the Vietnam of today.

My problem with the book is the extreme violence, mostly toward women, that is depicted. Relentless, repetitive and very difficult to read. The three plotlines were confusing at times as the story jumps from one to another with very little explanation. At the same time, parts of this book are beautifully written and the questions it raises are thought provoking and important. I would have liked more closure at the end of the book, but I know The Alphabet of Vietnam is one that will linger in my mind.

Through the first person narrator and the story, the author discusses the Vietnam War, its dire consequences to both the Vietnamese people and to the American soldiers who were there. The book mentions the atrocities in My Lai and the guilt and despair of some returning soldiers because of what they might have witnessed and perhaps even done during the war.The book is told from an American's point of view. The story is also a story of love as well as of the war and it brings up a lot of questions about the past.

In this oddly thought out book, Jonathan Chamberlain tells us many stories. There are brothers Joe and Jack; Joe’s friend Wash; several women who die sadly; a Vietnamese poetess named Ho Xoan Houng who wrote beautiful poems for us; Maddie, Benjy and Alice.

Joe dies purposefully. He did it himself. Dove under a train. It usually works well and did this time, too. Jack is delivered a set of notes that completely changes his hum-drum existence. “Go find Maddie and my baby and get them away from Wash before they die.” Pretty straight forward.

Well, Jack found Wash, Maddie and barely more than a zygote Benjy in the hills of the Eastern Mountains. Maddie was a slave to Wash and to Joe. She wanted to escape and it was up to Jack to make that happen. However – it didn’t quite work that way. Jack wants to learn what Vietnam did to his brother but doesn’t particularly want to know what Joe did in Vietnam. He learns anyhow.

He travels there – sees what Joe saw and thinks on that. He drank bad beer, crawled in caves and learned lessons of poverty and pain. He learned what Joe forgot.

There are people I know who absolutely should not read this book. The people we loved and saw return home changed are among them. Then there are us – the ones who stayed. We need to read this book. We may not want to, but we need to. (  )

“An extraordinary page-turner. Intricately plotted, with astute observations that capture the fingernails-on-a-blackboard atmosphere of Vietnam, then and now. Reminiscent of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene. It’s up there with the best.” — Colin Leinster, former Vietnam correspondent, LIFE magazine

“This book really got to me. I am a veteran, I fought in Vietnam in 1970 and 1971 with the Australian Army and in Cambodia in 1972 with FANK against the NVA and the KR. Chamberlain has touched on something here that very few people have the slightest idea about. The darkness in us all that the combat experience can somehow turn into something that can consume us. It can turn us into something less than human, it’s a kind of rage and its call is siren to say the least. The mix of fear, power, adrenaline, hatred and despair is a volatile one and once a person is in its clutches it can be very difficult indeed to get out. I know, because although I did ultimately manage to claw my way out, it really did nearly have me, it nearly took me for good or worse and I did much under its influence that I relive sometimes, those incidents seem surreal as though I read about them once or saw them on TV, but no, it was me or at least the person I once was. I could truly identify with Joe and Wash, I was often repulsed by them but there was much in them that is in me and it has seen the light of day – and that is truly frightening. I guess more of Joe than Wash but, believe me, I have known plenty who just like Wash went down that road, seeking the combat context which allowed them to dance with that particular devil. I was truly on the way to being one of them. This is not an easy book to read but it is an extraordinary piece of work.” — Amazon USA
“Chamberlain, who lived and wrote in Hong Kong for 25 years until 2000 but still returns occasionally from the UK, weaves an intricate plot in Alphabet, which captures the tense atmosphere of Vietnam, back in wartime days and now. It centres around Jack, whose brother Joe – a ‘Nam veteran – has died, and features Joe’s war buddy, Wash, who has kidnapped a girl. It builds tension from the off.” — Time Out

“When I came across this title while writing my Summer Reading List, I knew it was going to be a fascinating read.“ —The Examiner

“The Alphabet of Vietnam is a meditation on the duality of human nature. The book reveals a postmodern window into the dark side in all of us, as revealed by the brutality of post-industrial warfare. It’s not a book for everyone. Anyone sensitive to issues of race, religion, or patriotism could be put off or offended by the work (not that the book is actually guilty of these offenses). Nonetheless, it’s an amazingly intelligent and insightful work that reveals much truth about humanity for anyone willing to venture forth into its pages. ...Chamberlain mixes in brief asides from  Carl von Clausewitz and the Marquis de Sade to create a postmodern philosophical masterpiece. ...The bottom line is that The Alphabet of Vietnam is sophisticated, revealing many dark truths about American culture to which most people will simply turn a deaf ear. ...it is an incredibly worthy piece of literature that deserves to be read and taken seriously.” -  Joseph Yamine, English professor and writer from Roanoke. Published in Virginia Libraries Journal

“This is not an A, B, C of a concept, a war, or a time of American history. This is a hard as nails, jagged as broken mirror of the evil we avoid, live with, and sometimes willingingly/unwillingly participate. Presented in several voices, I occasionally faltered as to whose time and experience I was reading, but I could not stop reading. No matter how insanely harsh or sublimely sweet, I had to know where we would all wind up.” - Cat Shannon, Amazon USA.

“I love this book.I hate this book. It shocks and seduces in turns. This dark and horrifying story of violence, cruelty and abuse during and after the Vietnam War is also funny, tender and enlightening.Though wonderfully written, it took me time to grasp the storyline as it went back and forth in time and place, from voice to voice. A second reading was well, well worthwhile. Powerful. Sensitive. Sometimes erotic. Possibly a great book. Certainly a gem.” - Anthony Crichton, Amazon UK

“Words, which pop into my mind thinking about this novel: dark, beautiful; human, inhuman; violent, peaceful; sick cruelty, passionate love; friendship?” - Orsolya Zarug, Amazon UK

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