The Three Fates by Linda Lê (trans. Mark Polizetti). New Directions. 176 pp., $15.95.
A well-known figure on the French literary scene, Linda Lê has had very little exposure to readers in the United States. A new translation of her 1997 novel The Three Fates may begin to change that situation. The novel is the first of three that Lê wrote following the death of her Vietnamese father, and like many of her works, it portrays individuals grappling with emotion and trauma in the aftermath of immigration from Vietnam.
From its first lines depicting an old man, “tired, broken . . . sitting in his small blue house like King Lear in his hovel,” the novel aligns its main characters with the most canonical of literary figures. “King Lear’s” daughters turn out to be the “Three Fates” of the title: two sisters and their cousin; three women who have left their father behind while emigrating to France from Vietnam during the early 1970′s. Living a life of relative wealth and comfort, the novel’s main thread revolves around their discussions as they plan to bring him out for a visit.
King Lear (as the novel refers to the father) corresponds regularly with his daughters, but it has been a long time since he has seen them. The daughters are chatty, but guarded characters. The older sister is expecting a baby with her Swiss husband, a manufacturer of “nuts and bolts” who is also a deeply committed Tibetan Buddhist. The older sister is proud of her house, her domestic life, and wants to show off her happiness to her father.
The younger sister is in the process of breaking up with her Dutch boyfriend; she is her father’s favorite, even though her Vietnamese is not as good as it could be. Her good looks and appealing qualities define her throughout the novel, although they also are revealed to be masking a troubled interior life.
A darker presence is their cousin, the novel’s main narrator. Sitting with them as they hatch plans to bring over their father, she describes the minutiae of everyone’s movements in a voice dripping with bitterness and sarcasm. While her own motivations are somewhat mysterious, this mystery is embodied by a stump — a reminder that she has lost one of her hands.
As the novel slowly unfolds, we are confronted with a series of emotional snapshots that bring us into intimate contact with these women’s experiences, including their escape from Vietnam, their conflicted relationship with their maternal Grandmother who brought them to France, their romantic relationships, and the excitement and apprehension inspired by King Lear’s impending visit.
While the majority of these stories are inherently fascinating and excruciatingly detailed, The Three Fates is by no means an easy read. Although it is relatively short, the novel’s overriding feature is its forceful, difficult narration. Written without chapter or paragraph breaks—and with only a few, intermittent “section” breaks—and without any dialogue or direct discourse, the novel creates a fractured, dream-like surface that glides from one perspective to another:
My cousin was determined to defend her hearth and her little family against the mute and sinister imprecations of Ms. Southpaw, who had always enjoyed calling down on disaster with all her might. (There she was, like a port-wine stain on a virgin forehead, an oozing pustule on smooth skin; there she was with her dark clothes, missing hand, messily chopped hair, her two black marble eyes that gave you the creeps, her little orphan’s voice with its endless refrain of He’snotcrazy! He’snotcrazy! And the repulsive habit rubbing her stump on anything within reach in the new house — tablecloths, napkins, cushions, bedspreads, and now apples.)
The perspective here begins with the cousin but moves to that of the older sister within the space of a sentence. But because the description is still framed by the cousin, there is an ambivalence about whether the negative images (“port-wine stain,” “oozing pustule”) are coming from the sister herself, or whether the cousin is performing some kind of ventriloquism.
Much of the story is told in between repetitive images of bodies, grotesque and unexpected, that pervade the novel: the older sister constantly rubs her round, pregnant belly; the little sister crossing and re-crossing her bare legs; and the cousins’ stump, brushing away ants, itching itself on a piece of fruit. The focus on the physical detaches the characters from their motivations and thus reinforces the perspectival vertigo of the narration.
Furthering the disorientation, the work uses no proper names, but rather anoints each character with a handful of nicknames. Many of the nicknames are in fact a way to further the grotesque depictions of bodies in the novel: Pot-Belly (the elder daughter), Gorgeous Gams or Long-Legs (younger daughter), and Southpaw (the cousin). These replacement names do double duty as both place-markers, and insults. The nicknames enable the reader to more instantly become part of the family intimacies and close enough to understand how names can be wielded as weapons, blurring the line between names and name-calling.
The translation, by Mark Polizetti, is impressive in its ability to render the perspectival shifts and general pacing of the language. At times, the tone of sarcasm and cruelty feels a bit over the top and the nicknames can seem clunky, but overall works quite successfully to render the fragmentation and tension that characterize the novel.
* * *
Born in Dalat, Vietnam, to a relatively well-to-do professional family, Lê moved to France in her teens with her mother, sisters and grandmother. Left behind was her father, with whom she corresponded regularly until his death in 1995, on the eve of a trip to the United States. For Lê, his death was a tragedy and the catalyst of a period of severe mental pain (in her acknowledgements for The Three Fates, she writes that the novel was “written in a state of extreme isolation” and indicates that she endured as mental breakdown during the writing process.)
Lê has been interviewed several times in France and has spoken at length about her writing, its relationship to her own history, and her engagement with both the French language and the French literary tradition. A question that she is often asked by interviewers is the extent to which her writing reflects her autobiography. It’s a question that begs a bigger one about categorizing immigrant and exilic authors in the minority literature category. What qualities enable a novel to exceed such categories? And what qualities are there to help define a genre?
Lê’s answers to these questions have been absolute — she resists the notion of categories, whether that of the immigrant novelist, exilic writer, or as a portrayer of the French-Vietnamese community. For her, novels like The Three Fates belong to the category of myth, dream, and fanstasmgoria.
Does Lê succeed in transcending such categories? The Three Fates certainly makes some bold moves towards this end by mobilizing the most universal literary allusions, drawing from Greek mythology and Shakespeare, in order to develop characters and action of the novel. The lack of proper names also keeps us detached from the characters as specific individuals. Indeed, much of the flashbacks to the experience of war, interactions with the communist party, and circumstances of their move to France are actually rendered in almost folkloric or fable-like terms: party leaders are the “foxes,” their grandmother is referred to as the “Lady Jackal.”
While these metaphoric registers are compelling, they are not fully fleshed out. Although the novel gives a great deal of prominence to the figure of King Lear, it does not take full advantage of the possibilities of that particular intertext. Similarly, it would have been very interesting to examine the three female characters as a blending of Lear’s daughters and the Three Fates of mythology, but this idea is also just introduced, rather than developed throughout the novel.
In the end, it is the banalities and the specific emotions of the characters that compel the reader— emotions that are derived from experience rather than any kind of generic expectations. The aspects of Lê’s novel that make it a portrait of contemporary French society are more successful that those which attempt to position it on mythical registers.
>Promita Chatterji holds a Ph D. in Comparative Literature and is a freelance reviewer based in Berkeley.
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