And although not all of the stories have the same themes, almost all of them involve alienation, madness, doubles, mirrors, suicide, (sado-)masochism, parents as monsters, violence, victimhood, reading and writing as therapy, etc. Lê's is also an essentially anonymous world, and forenames plus surnames don't exist: in this book at least, it's just forename and initial of surname, or an eccentric nickname.
The first story is 'Reeves C.', which revolves around events indirectly linked to Southern writer Carson McCullers's relationship with Reeves, the man she married twice, and who killed himself in the Hôtel de Château-Frontenac, 54 rue Pierre-Charron, Paris, in November 1953.
'Reeves C.' is told entirely in the first person, although (a little confusingly) the first person in the introductory section is a woman later called – by the, er, second and subsequent narrator – 'Douleur Muette' (or 'Mute Pain' if I really must translate it literally). Douleur Muette first briefly encounters the second narrator as he forges a path past her down the street urgently informing her that he has to reclaim his taste for living, and disappearing across the road with little regard for his own safety.
Douleur Muette dreams that night that she asks a cab driver to take her to rue Pierre-Charron, although the driver refuses. She makes her own way there next morning and finds the man who has to refind his taste for living, who tells her that a friend of his killed himself in the Hôtel de Château-Frontenac.
There follows a strange sado-masochistic relationship by means of a series of telephone calls that the man makes to Douleur Muette, in which only the man speaks, and the woman makes notes. An analogy is established between the writers Carson McCullers and the woman, and Reeves and the man, who both in the end kill themselves.
In the second story, 'Professor T.', there are three narratives: the words from the notebook of Professor T., who has killed himself in his cellar after his son has killed himself and his wife has gone mad; the words from papers in between the notebook written by 'Plus-dure-sera-la-chute' ('The Harder They Fall'), who is Professor T's alter ego; and the notes from the investigator.
The professor is an austere bully obsessed with morality, whereas Plus-dure-sera-la-chute is concerned more with sex, hates the professor, and has existed since the professor was twelve: he makes his appearances at times of crisis. Plus-dure-sera-la-chute sees an analogy with the Kurosawa film Rashômon (1950) – a son who kills himself and a wife who goes mad – but he also brings in Moritz Schreber (1808–61). Schreber was a physician who invented contraptions for city children to release excess energy, and devices to prevent masturbation: child psychologist Alice Miller (1923–2004) called him a proponent of 'poisonous pedagogy'. Schreber's son, Daniel Paul Schreber, wrote a rather different book: Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken (Memoirs of My Nervous Illness) (1903) – negative inheritance is important in Lê's vision.
This is another story of mutual destruction. In the end, the fascinated investigator doesn't know if the professor has killed himself, killed the other man in him, or allowed the other man to kill him. Maddened in a similar fashion, the investigator looks for his alter ego and wants a cellar.
'Klara V.' begins the story at the end, where a young woman has killed herself by jumping from La Defense. Again, there is a reference to the cinema: Billy Wilder's Fedora (1978), in which Fedora throws herself from a train at the beginning, and – yet another double – Marthe Keller plays Fedora as well as Fedora's daughter Antonia.
Klara's mother is clearly mad, abuses her daughter as a young child, pretends to be sick and has her daughter wait on her. At 17 Klara uglifies herself by wearing thick glasses and drab-coloured, shapeless clothes: a kind of identification with the aggressor this may in a sense be, but it's also a defence, as (interestingly) is the shoring up of books as a bulwark against the madness.
When Klara is 19 the mother ruins her relationships by writing letters to her daughter's lovers, slandering her. Even when she's 23, her mother visits her and searches her drawers to she can discover the details of her latest lover in order to write poison about her. Her mother dead, Klara continues to write similar letters to her lovers: sadism is followed by masochism. In 'A Vietnamese Voice in the Dark', (Francophone Post-Colonial Cultures: Critical Studies (Lexington Books: Lanham, MD, 2003)), ed. by Kamal Salhi, Emily Vaughan Roberts says: 'Klara denies herself a sense of belonging or stability through her continuing compusive dialogue with the past – a predicament that often affects an exile.' Alienation is self-perpetuating.
The final story is 'Vinh L.', which begins with a narrator who is in a sense the double of the main narrator Vinh L., as he's a writer who plagiarizes, which is perceived as a form of cannibalism. And cannibalism is the main subject, as Vinh L. has been one of the boat people escaping from Vietnam, and is torn apart by guilt because he was forced to kill in order to eat human flesh (one body being transformed into another) to survive the journey.
Vinh's narrative is in ten letters, and in the fifth there's another kind of double, as he mentions reading an article about a murdered Italian author in which the epigraph reads 'I have killed my father. I have eaten human flesh and I am trembling with joy', and I'm aware of these as sentences in the film Porcile (Pigsty) by the (murdered) director Pasolini. The cinema seems to play a big part in Linda Lê's life: I've mentioned earlier that when she dies she wants to be watching Fritz Lang's Moonfleet. But Vinh L. doesn't die: he returns to Vietnam for a kind of redemption.
Linda Lê's work makes for an enthralling, if exhausting, read.
There are links to my other Linda Lê book posts below.
Linda Lê: Voix: une crise (1998)
Linda Lê: A l'enfant que je n'aurai pas (2011)
Linda Lê: Lame de fond
Linda Lê: Lettre morte
Linda Lê: Personne