To experience history through the lens of combat photographers. Tatjana Soli’s novel The Lotus Eaters explores the trials of being a war photographer during the American-Vietnamese war. Here, guest author and critic Chris Galvin gives us her take on The Lotus Eaters.
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On the surface, The Lotus Eaters is a war story and a love story. On a deeper level, the book delves into the ethics of journalism, the psychology of why people would want to photograph, write or fight in a war zone, the psychology of crisis, and issues of culture. Though it is a fictional tale, Soli weaves in so many historical places and events that the novel is realistic and believable.
The central characters are three photojournalists; Helen and Sam (Americans), and Linh (Vietnamese), who work together, covering the conflict in Viet Nam. The book opens with the fall of Sai Gon, then takes us back to twelve years before, progressing until it takes up the thread where the beginning left off.
The title comes from the characters in Homer’s The Odyssey who travel to a far place, eat the fruit of the lotus and lose all desire to do anything but remain and dine on “the honeyed fruit”. The themes of forgetting one’s homeland, of becoming hooked on place, and of love and war as addictive drugs are touched on frequently throughout the novel. Characters each have their preferred fruit of seduction. For some, it is the war itself: “The war doesn’t ever have to end for us.”
Through characters who want to make a difference before they can consider going home, Soli examines the fine line between philanthropy and feeding the ego, and the difficulty of returning to safety and everyday life after living the horrors of war. She looks at problems of choosing between what one wants to do and what one should do; quitting for the good and safety of self and others vs. staying on for what could be the big career break; getting out before it’s too late vs. staying to see the end, pushing it to the limit, and risking everything.
As in real life, some characters become addicted to the fear and adrenaline, the challenge of going out on missions, getting the best photo or story and then one-upping themselves by getting an even better one. They each need to be the first one there on a scene and it’s never enough. Fulfillment comes only briefly when they’ve stared down death and come out alive. The country, the war and this need become synonymous for them. But for a few, the lure of Viet Nam goes much deeper. For Helen, “leaving was like dying”.
Linh is the other side of the coin, his main desire being to get away from the war. However, while the Americans have the option of going home to peace, he cannot escape; the war is in his country. Linh too, has his lotus, but it is not so immediately obvious as those of the others.
“…what I came to find”
Soli’s characters, like the real foreign soldiers and journalists who went to Viet Nam, have various reasons for being there. Some want to be heroes. Others are just doing a job, or don’t want to be there at all. Helen has layers of interconnected reasons. She arrives hoping to discover the truth about what happened to her brother, who had gone earlier. As a woman in what is considered a man’s place, she also has something to prove, both to herself and to others. Very few women photographers went into battle zones, and weren’t welcome until they had proven their mettle. (It is interesting that the U.S. view of the war was decidedly macho, with the women who saw active duty mostly serving on the sidelines, while the VC they were fighting against had no trouble with the idea of women carrying heavy guns and slogging through the jungle.)
Some foreign correspondents were there hoping to make a difference, to portray the truth and help to stop the war, while others just dreamt of winning a Pulitzer. Soli’s photographers represent both types. They risk their lives to be the first at scenes of mortal combat, some to get exclusive photos which might make the cover of Time or Life, others to capture the photo that will change the way people understand war.
Helen is looking for something more. She is on a constant quest to see beyond the surface of the war and the people involved. She wants to know what drives the soldiers, and looks for those rare people who go deeper, who want to understand the local people and the land, who discover the “secret of place”. In seeking to find herself, she also becomes one of these people, a change from her initial view when she first arrives, of Viet Nam as merely a third-world, war-torn place for an adventure.
The ethics of the job
In the first chapter, Helen bats away a woman’s hand in order to get a picture of another who has just died, telling herself she’s earned the right to take the photo. It is here that Soli first introduces the moral problems of being a war photographer.
Soli compares them to vultures, swooping down when there is a kill. They revel in the perfect photo, “an incredible shot…a real tear jerker” then feel ashamed of what they’ve done. They must become jaded, unfeeling in order to get up close in the face of death. But is it possible to become so callous? What happens to those who do? Soli also questions the power a photograph has to enlighten and to create outrage against war. Does constant exposure to horrific images stimulate change or does it just deaden the impact? Is there any redemptive aspect to the capturing of such images?
Truth and lies
The issue of ethics is closely tied in with the question of truth in journalism. Part of the story of war is the belief that photos don’t lie. The author points out that they can and do: the photographer chooses the subject, the angle, the lighting, and what’s in the frame to express a specific point of view, and to influence the impressions of those who will see the photos. Photos of innocent villagers shot by scared Americans can appear to be photos of dangerous hostile forces. “Hard facts were difficult to come by.”
During the war in Viet Nam, the lies stretched all the way from the top down. One of the biggest ongoing lies, perpetrated by those in command, was that the US was about to win, even after it was obvious to everyone that it was futile. (Reporters who dared to tell the truth were criticized by the American administration and President Kennedy asked The New York Times to remove David Halberstam from Sai Gon for his truthful but negative reports. Furthermore, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, used to give a legal basis for the war, was built on a lie.)
In the first chapter Soli works in the fact that the Vietnamese who were permitted to leave during the last flights out after the fall of Sai Gon were classified as “dependnts of the Americans” and points out that in fact the Americans had been dependnt on them in order to survive; all part of the lies of the era. This theme of lies is threaded throughout the book. There are lies to conceal intentions, lies to protect identity, big lies and small lies. Sam and Helen continually pretend to each other and indeed it is necessary, just for them all to make it through. Sometimes, people know something is a lie, but they want so hard to believe that they ignore the truth.
Even though the Americans and the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam) were supposedly fighting on the same side, they were really two solitudes. Neither understood the other. They didn’t mix for the most part. Many of the Americans viewed all Vietnamese suspiciously as the “other side”. Soli’s Vietnamese photojournalist, Linh, though he is working with Americans, always moves among them under a shadow of otherness.
Through Linh, Soli illustrates the difficulty of communication between people who don’t understand each others’ ways of thinking. To learn to truly understand a culture one has to see how it is rooted in the history and geography of a people and their land.
Linh sees the other photojournalists from both an insider’s perspective (as a war journalist), and the perspective of an insider looking at outsiders (a local watching the foreigners), which gives him a clarity the others don’t have: “Day after day, I go out with photographers who are tourists of the war.”
Towards the end of the book, one of the journalists muses that “the whole country remained a cipher”. Most of Soli’s Americans never get to know the people or the country. Those who mix in with local people, eat local food, “go native”, are viewed as weird by the majority, who are there only to do a job, or to be heroes for their own country. “Vietnam was nothing more or less than what they purchased during R&R in the bars and the streets of Saigon and Danang.”
A recommendation and a few quibbles
At first, I found myself distracted by a number of errors in the writing, including problems of style and grammar, and some misspelt Vietnamese words. However, Soli has done such a good job of researching, imagining and writing the story that these mostly receded into the background.
The book is written from multiple points of view. In chapter one, the author suddenly jumps to the thoughts of a different character several times, sometimes in the middle of a paragraph. In some cases it takes a few lines before the reader realizes that the author has made this switch. For the most part, the changes in the rest of the book are well handled with new paragraphs or chapters to mark them. Having Linh’s point of view in the story is refreshing, and Soli has written him as a very believable and well-developed character with a complex background, offering a view of the war from a local perspective.
This is a minor quibble, but a glossary might have been nice for the military terms. The book isn’t heavy on them, but still, I found myself flipping back to the beginning, looking for the first mention of LRRP, because when I came across it again two thirds into the book, I’d forgotten that the acronym stands for long range reconnaissance patrol. Some readers might be curious to know that LZ stands for landing zone, or exactly what a Claymore is (and if Soli had researched the definition, she would have known that they are never detonated by the pressure of a footstep, but remotely or with a trip wire).
Overall, I highly recommend this book. It is accessible for readers who don’t normally care to read war stories, and includes perspectives not usually found together in the literature of the American- Viet Nam war. Soli’s attention to detail gives the story an intense realism. The huge amount of research that went into the novel is evident in these details and in the comprehensive bibliography. She also includes a shorter list of good suggestions for further reading. It would have been nice to see a few more works by Vietnamese authors on the list, especially since one of the three main characters is Vietnamese. There are over forty books included in her bibliography and recommendations, out of which five are by Vietnamese authors. This lack can’t be blamed on a paucity of such works in English, as there are many translations available.
Book Review by Chris Galvin
The Lotus Eaters
Dec 21 2010
Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Chris Galvin divides her time between Canada and Vietnam. Her photos and literary non-fiction have appeared in Room Magazine, Khám phá Du lịch Việt Nam / Vietnam Tourism Review and Dac San Van Lang Boston. Her work is also pending publication in SPLIT Quarterly, Spezzatino, and an anthology, The City We Share. She is currently writing a book of essays about life in Viet Nam.
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The posts on reading suggestions and combat photographers are up:
Dan, thanks for commenting. I’m working with someone to put together a list of Vietnamese authors of the war, and will post here to let you know when you can read it. We will most likely do a dual posting; he will talk about books on his site, and I will be posting more on the topic of combat photographers.
Berit, thanks so much for reading and for your kind comments. Good (albeit sad) point about the expat experience.
A very thorough and reflected review!
You sum up the ethical and human questions about war journalism and war photography:
“Does constant exposure to horrific images stimulate change or does it just deaden the impact? Is there any redemptive aspect to the capturing of such images?”
And also of the expat experience itself.
“Most of Soli’s Americans never get to know the people or the country.”
Sounds like an interesting and extremely well researched book.
I just read this book and loved it. I felt like I was right there. My father was in the war, and he just read this review with me, so he is planning to read it too. His friends were photojournalists there, so it is close to his heart.
I absolutely agree with the reviewer that a) there should be a glossary of army terms, but maybe even of the Vietnamese words. I had to guess by context sometimes, and it would be nice to know exactly. b) there should have been more books by Vietnamese authors in the bibilography. When I finished reading the book, I actually read through the list looking to find out what I could read about the war from a Vietnamese viewpoint, and was disappointed by the lack. I must say, the change from one characters voice to that of another at the beginning almost made me put the book down and stop reading, but I was glad I didnt do that. It was worth it to keep going. I found all the info about photography in wartime to be fascinating.