From Lost Identities to Lost Tribes ; Lucy Gillmore Reads a Selection of This Month's Travel Books

Article excerpt

Catfish & Mandala: A Vietnamese Odyssey

Andrew X Pham

(Flamingo, pounds 10.99)

Andrew Pham is a Vietnamese American. In Vietnam, his name was An. He is a "Viet-kieu". His family was among the "Boat People" who escaped from Vietnam after the Communist victory and were taken to "the promised land" by well-meaning Christians from the Deep South. Fleeing the bible-bashers, they wound up in California, striving for the American Dream. Until, that is, a Vietnam veteran in the Mexican desert begged Pham's forgiveness for crimes against his people, and he realised that he didn't know who his people were. In search of a cultural identity, Pham takes a cathartic journey back to his roots, cycling the length of Vietnam from Saigon to Hanoi.

On the surface, Catfish & Mandala is one of those bike-across- the-Pacific Rim-and-find-yourself books - which is very Californian but not very Vietnamese. But it's much more than that. Interweaving past and present, Catfish & Mandala is also a poignant memoir and an attempt to exorcise a family tragedy - the suicide of Pham's sister, Chi. Chi died, Pham is told, because she became too American. She was self-centred, rather than selfless like a true Vietnamese daughter. Far from being an American Dream success story, Pham's family turns out to be trapped in its own dysfunction.

But if that sounds a bit heavy, it's not. Catfish & Mandala is, above all, a lively adventure, the personal drama unfolding gradually, leaving us on the edge of our seats. It is also full of humour, a healthy dose of diarrhoea and haemorrhoids, and a dash of Californian introspection.

Bursting with wild characters, Pham's book exposes the worst and the best of the Vietnamese with a raw honesty, from the petty officials to the wise old men living on catfish. You can almost taste Vietnam in his images: drunkenly revelling in the "dusty skin like yesterday's bread"; the way trees "rise above the lumpy plain, scattered like stubble on a drunkard's face"; and "her 70-year-old face, flabby, floppy like a Halloween pumpkin left out through November". You want to stick your tongue out and lick every last morsel of the page.

Hungry for Home: Leaving the Blaskets - A Journey from the Edge of Ireland

Cole Moreton

(Viking, pounds 14.99)

"This is the end of the world. The air is full of terrible wailing. A gale scalps the waves spilling foam." The opening lines of Hungry for Home have echoes of a fireside tale in the best oral tradition, but the wild night in question signalled a very real ending of one particular world. The author, a writer on this newspaper, hurls us into a dramatisation of events on Christmas Eve 1946, when the sudden illness and death of a young man on Great Blasket, a desolate island off the west coast of Ireland, proved the final catalyst for the islanders' evacuation.

Moreton goes in search of the last remaining islanders, following in the wake of one family's personal tragedy. Celebrated as the last bastion of Gaelic culture and language, the Blasket islands had come to hold a hallowed place in the Irish consciousness. …