A Vietnamese Life Etched by War and Its Ripples

WHEN HEAVEN AND EARTH CHANGED PLACES: A VIETNAMESE WOMAN'S JOURNEY FROM WAR TO PEACE, by Le Ly Hayslip with Jay Wurts. New York: Doubleday. 368 pp. $18.95. ``SUFFOCATE her!'' the midwife advised Phung Thi, Le Ly's mother. The spindly infant weighed two pounds, and that augured trouble for a struggling Vietnamese peasant family in 1949.

Little Le Ly survived the midwife's suggestion, and lived to experience a childhood that was never free from war. One of her earliest recollections is of being a toddler sheltering in a trench from a sudden bombardment. She snuggled next to her eight-year-old sister, Lan, who composed a lullaby for the occasion, using the cadences of a traditional happy washing song: ``French come, French come,/ Cannon shells land, go hide!/ Cannon shells sing,/ Like a song all day!'' Her mother's cradle songs were no more comforting: ``Our eyes fill with tears/ While we watch and ask God:/ Why is the enemy so cruel?''

Songs accompanied the occasions of Le Ly's young life. ``With our bare hands we destroy the enemy,'' she sang for the Viet Minh, the followers of Ho Chi Minh who fought the French from a network of tunnels beneath Le Ly's village of Ky La, near Da Nang. Because they lived underground, Le Ly came to think of the Viet Minh as her revered ancestors, who protected the village from their graves.

For soldiers of the South, Le Ly would sing, ``Ngo Dinh Diem fills us with joy''; when the Northern forces came through town, the name of Ho Chi Minh was substituted. War was a game for Le Ly and her playmates, and she managed to become the hero of the game. As a lookout for the Viet Cong, Le Ly gave a signal that disrupted a combined mission of American and Southern forces. Suspected of collusion, she was briefly interred and interrogated. On her return she learned that a song had been composed in her honor: ``Sister Ly/ Was in prison - tied up hand and foot./ Beaten by day - tortured by night/ ... her struggle will go on forever.''

Her struggle went only until her second arrest, when the torture sessions intensified, and when, after her release, the Viet Cong sentenced her to death for supposed treason. Instead of being shot, Le Ly was raped by her would-be executioners.

Troi dat doi thay: Heaven and earth changed places. The singing stopped. At 14, Le Ly was without a spiritual home. Under sentence of death from the North, suspected of collusion by the South, expelled because of the rapes from her future as a virgin bride in peasant society, Le Ly was now a danger to her family. It was as if the midwife's forebodings had come true.

Le Ly grew despondent: ``I promised myself ... I would only flow with the strongest current and drift with the steadiest wind - and not resist. To resist, you have to believe in something.'' The remainder of Le Ly's autobiography is the story of an adolescent girl adrift on the eddies of power in a country as rudderless in the tides of peasant culture, Western commercialism, and sophistical nationalism as she is. As if to reinforce the sense of dislocation, the book shifts from Le Ly's teen-age life to her return to Vietnam as an American citizen in 1986.

What could have been a self-serving book is instead a frank and occasionally seamy account of a girl's travels through the underclass and underworld of Saigon. While Le Ly consents to be neither victimized nor vengeful - severe failings she locates in others - her passivity frequently bordered on dissembling.

Perhaps in compensation for a time in which she was morally adrift, Le Ly is fiercely honest about her Saigon days. She refuses to prettify her relationship with American servicemen, nor does she conceal that she was an unwed mother. When she marries an American contractor who is almost three times her age, it is clear that she is willing to play the role of docile Asian wife in exchange for the chance to get out of Vietnam.

Le Ly's return to Vietnam in 1986 is subject to the same harsh light. She finds that the effects of the war have been etched deep into the minutiae of daily life. Her brother, a Viet Cong soldier whom she last saw when she was five years old, cannot bring himself to accept a candy from her hand. ``A lot of American food was booby-trapped after liberation,'' he explains. Her sister, Hai, now a humble snail-gatherer, will not speak to her in the market for fear of being noticed. Even at the farewell dinner given for her, the atmosphere fills with bitter memories as family members recall hardships and think about the future.

The moment of resolution for Le Ly comes toward the end of her 1986 trip, when her mother pronounces: ``Your past is now complete. The war for you is over ... Nuoc rong to nuoc lon ... low tide to high tide.'' Yet Le Ly does not let herself confuse personal salvation with that of others. She counsels: ``The Vietnam war will not be over until it ends for everyone.''

It is tempting to enlarge Phung Thi Le Ly's story, to make her history of want and humiliation a metaphor for all the loss, and the lost generations, East and West, produced by the Vietnam war. But this chronicle resists smooth generalization; its authenticity issues from the particularities of an individual experience recounted in a unique voice. ``When Heaven and Earth Changed Places'' puts one in mind of all the individual stories of that epoch, all the stories of private grief and triumph that remain unwritten - and unfinished.

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