Sunday, May 2, 2010

Self as Narrator, Self as Hero

One of the peculiarities of travel writing is that normally the central character of the narrator - the hero, if you like - is the writer himself.
I am talking here about the unnamed narrator of Destination Saigon, called variously, Big Brother, Fatty, Sir and – my favourite – Dumpling Face. He’s lazy, and disinclined to indulge in physical exercise – and there's something I recognise in that. He could be accused of being a religious maniac, except he’s never seen a religious person or religious act that he couldn’t poke fun at. There’s an inability to be serious, perhaps even a fear of the grave (and I leave the meaning of that statement intentionally unclear).
This character – this other Walter Mason – is also a big man, and I share this quality with him. The Vietnamese have the great charm of normally being completely honest and up-front. Being among them is like being in that awful film where no-one knows how to tell lies. Any faults, any physical differences, are immediately assessed and brought to the fore. My thesis is that this is a result of centuries lived in a communal culture in frequently crowded conditions. If everyone were to go about pretending not to notice things – the way we do – then society probably couldn’t function. People will introduce you to their family with such descriptions as “This is Sister Two – she’s retarded. Sister Three here is the great beauty of the family, but unfortunately that got used up by the time Sister Four came around – she’s extremely plain.” All this said not just in hearing distance of the said sisters, but in front of their faces. It might seem cruel, but after a while it is immensely liberating. You have no need to worry about what people are saying behind your back – because they are saying it in front of your back. If that makes sense.
And so my bigness is one of the badges I carry in Vietnam.

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