Book Review: LOVE LIKE HATE, Vietnam through black humor

dinh, linh - love like hate (1).jpgLove Like Hate
Linh Dinh

During the Vietnam War, Kim Lan and ARVN officer Hoang Long married. While his deployments–and his mistress–took him away from Saigon most of the year, Kim Lan ran her cafe and cared for her son, Cun. After South Vietnam fell to the communists, life dramatically changed for them both. The beginning and end of the novel, set in the recent past and focusing on Kim Lan and her desire to find a Viet Kieu (overseas, hopefully from America, Vietnamese) husband for her daughter, Hoa, bookend the story of Hoang Long and Kim Lan’s past.

Quang Trung explained to Hoa that he called his band Love Like Hate because that was how he felt about Vietnam. “I love Vietnam so much I hate her. How can I not hate her when I love her so much? I am like a son who froths at the mouth because he has to watch his mother sell her pussy. She’s sold her pussy to the Chinese, French, Russians and Americans, and now she’s selling it to the Taiwanese. She’d sell her pussy to anyone because she feels inferior to everyone. She’s thrilled to be humiliated because someone is paying attention to her. And when she’s too old to sell her own pussy, she sells her daughter’s pussy. That’s Mother Vietnam for you!”

Parts of Love Like Hate were amazing. Linh Dinh describes civilian life during and after the war in what seems like an authentic manner, and he depicts life in a reeducation camp, shrines, and the landscape in vivid detail, all with a black humor.

As a whole, though, I wasn’t wild about the novel. It takes a sardonic tone, absolving no character or group of people. Most of the urban Vietnamese are presented as self-interested and greedy, the peasants superstitious and naive, the Americans as bumbling fools (which I can understand given our activities in the country), the French as condescending, the communists as hypocritical, capitalism promotes vapidity, and so on. The most benign characters might be seen as laissez-faire; the worst, selfish and cruel.

Neither Kim Lan nor Hoang Long had positive parental relationships. In each case, their mothers died young, their fathers were absent, and they were raised by stepmothers. Kim Lan seems to perpetuate the cruelty she learned while Hoang mirrors the distance of his father. Kim Lan’s children, Cun, her son, and Hoa, her daughter, respond differently to her controlling nature.

Linh Dinh’s critique’s are biting, and in many cases, ring true, but he doesn’t leave anything to fill the space he’s destroyed. As a result, the novel feels to me like its message is attenuated, leaving the reader with a sense of emptiness.