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March 21, 2010

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Wartime deja vu in Vietnam revisited

ON finishing Marti Leimbach's "The Man From Saigon," a novel about an American reporter, Susan Gifford, sent to Vietnam by a "women's interest" magazine in 1967, my first thought was that in 2010, at a time when the United States finds itself engaged in a complex, controversial multifront conflict that has now gone on for nearly a decade, Vietnam has at last become a safe artistic choice.

There is something familiar, almost reassuringly so, about the elements of this fast-paced, vividly descriptive novel. The book's acknowledgments reveal Leimbach's dutiful reading in period accounts. Turning the pages, I watched the film adaptation unreel in my imagination, where it merged with scenes from that pop-culture hothouse of Vietnam imagery, Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now."

The ingredients that decades ago proved so seductively vertiginous and surreally dislocating in that film, and in the writing of Michael Herr, Philip Caputo and Tim O'Brien, flavor Leimbach's novel: from the maze of the jungle to the stink of Saigon's "sewage, rotting food, fires and burning fuel;" from the shelled bunker of a remote observation post to the roof of the Caravelle Hotel; from the toxic heat of the Mekong Delta to the aggressive, hallucinatory blades of a hotel room ceiling fan.

It's all there, but it's no longer quite so fresh: the deafening ride in a lurching helicopter, the abundant supply of drugs, the daily barrage of euphemisms for destruction from the briefing at the Joint US Public Affairs Office.

An atmosphere of deception and self-deception permeates this book. Leimbach (whose earlier novels include "Dying Young" and "Daniel Isn't Talking") invokes the convention of Vietnam's inscrutability to describe the landscape, the language and the secretive photographer, Hoang Van Son, who teams up with Gifford to travel the country in search of stories.

On one scouting mission they are captured by three Vietcong guerrillas separated from their unit. The prisoners' harrowing trek through the jungle forms the novel's backbone. The narration of this journey is interleaved with flashbacks to Gifford's affair with another journalist, Marc Davis, and to her earlier investigative trips; and with Davis' eventual search for his missing lover.

Leimbach's emphasis on a female reporter in a war that was so often covered by men (with notable exceptions, including Frances FitzGerald and Gloria Emerson) is refreshing. "Women's interest" becomes far more capacious than Gifford or her editor back home had imagined when Gifford begins to discern patterns where she once saw nothing.

Detailed maps

At the beginning of "Dispatches," Herr studies an antiquated map warped by age and heat in his Saigon apartment: "Even the most detailed maps didn't reveal much anymore; reading them was like trying to read the faces of the Vietnamese, and that was like trying to read the wind." The image of the map, borrowed from Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," also surfaces in "The Man From Saigon."

On the wall of Gifford's hotel room Son places a child's map illustrated with tigers, porpoises and parrots. "To look at this map," she allows, is "to see Vietnam not as a place of war ... but as a magical place." Captive in the jungle, she confronts a rather different cartography. The Americans think they "have been at war a long time ... but the Vietnamese have made war against intruders for many decades. There are signs of this everywhere, in the knotted grass, the snapped-off branches, the twisting trails ... There is a point to everything ... The landscape, itself, is set up for war."

In Afghanistan, in 2010, this is the kind of map young Americans are learning to read all over again.


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