By André DaoUnpublished Manuscript
Anam is a lucid, stylistically confident and unforgettable genre-defying novel that explores memory, intergenerationality and family legacy through an inquisitive and thoughtful narrator. The reader is guided effortlessly through the narrator’s exploration of his grandfather’s imprisonment in Vietnam, his own time in Cambridge, parenthood and life in Melbourne. It is a novel that is equally interested in place and home, and traces the global patterns of colony and empire from past to present.
Anam is thoughtful and open, beautifully written and compelling. The reader is pulled through gently but never at the expense of the depth of the ideas. It is a story that plays with the novel form, and shows what fiction is capable of. This will stay with the reader long after they’ve finished.
Imagine an octagonal structure. Each of the eight sides, named alphabetically from A to H, is in fact a long building, filled with cells. The inside wall of each lettered side is open, iron barred but otherwise transparent to the guards in the watchtower that stands in the centre of the octagon: Bentham’s Panopticon. A hyper-rationalist prison built by the hyper-rationalist colonial power.
But look closer. “Each place is more than one place” (Murnane). The prison was only completed by the French. It was conceived by the Japanese, and the true model for the prison’s design is the I Ching – the famous Chinese Book of Changes that so influenced Carl Jung. Look at the eight buildings that make up the octagon: each one is three stories high. Each building therefore corresponds to one of the original eight trigrams, the bát quái. Each floor is a line of the trigram, and is either broken – yin – or unbroken – yang. In the architecture of the building, the break in the line is represented by a concrete wall that cuts the floor in two, rendering it impassable. So in what the French called Building A, on the north side of the prison, there are no dividing walls because Building A corresponds to the trigram for Heaven: ☰. But in Building E – which sits opposite Building A, on the south side of the prison – every floor is blocked by a concrete wall so that one cannot pass through E to get to D or F at all; E corresponds to the trigram for Earth: ☷.
I could see all this very clearly in the scale model in my grandparents’ apartment. Its intricate detailing was astonishing. It was mostly made of plaster, painted to look like fading, weather worn concrete. But all the iron bars in the cells, and the ornamental gate at Death’s Door, were made of real metal, hand cut and polished. The one-way windows in the watchtower were made of real glass. The Buddhist pagoda in the yard of Building C was carved out of balsa wood and each of its seven floors was painted a different shade of yellow.
Most astonishing of all were the details inside the cells. Leaning in very closely, I could see through the iron bars of the wing where my grandfather was imprisoned, Section FG, the buildings making up the south west and west sides of the octagon. Tiny painted numbers, in red, identified the different cells; I always looked for Cell 6. Inside I could see a mass of twisted bodies – I knew from what my grandfather had told me that there were about fifty bodies in all, so small in this model that it was hard to tell where one ended and the next began. I could see the drop toilets at one end of the cell, the thin mattresses for the trusties and their allies at the other. I saw the bare concrete on which everyone else slept. With the aid of a magnifying glass I could see even more: the tiny chess sets with which they amused themselves, the lacquer bowls they ate rice from, fifty individual faces in the writhing mass.
Stepping back, I could see the tower in the middle of the hexagon, which the French believed would allow their guards to see every prisoner at every waking moment, or at least give the impression to each prisoner that he or she was being watched at every waking moment, and which the feng shui-ists believed was the source of the prison’s power. But I could also see the one inconsistency in the design: unlike all the other buildings, which had sloping, tiled roofs, the roof of Heaven – Building A, ☰ – had been flattened, and was now a bare concrete surface.
It was to let out the ghosts, my grandfather once told me. We were sitting in his room in the apartment in Boissy, and sitting hunched over on his hospital-style bed, coughing between his short sentences, he looked like a ghost himself. Chi Hoa, he said, was too well-designed. Even the ghosts couldn’t get out. At night, the noise in the yard got so loud that none of us could sleep, prisoners or guards. They were confused, looking for their ancestors, for their ancestral village. Where was the family temple? Instead all they saw were the eight walls of the prison. A very strong shape, very hard to break through. Only the strongest ghost could have broken out of that octagon. Even then he would need help: he would need a sorcerer, tools, money. But they didn’t even have clothes or food. Who was going to burn paper offerings to them in Chi Hoa? So they wandered the yard at night, naked and sobbing. It was too much! The guards paid for a feng shui master to come in. He said, clear the path for these souls through Heaven. And that’s what they did.
Did the ghosts all leave? Well, I still remember the day they finished the work on Heaven. The ghosts, still naked but calling out in happiness now, started climbing up the iron bars of the cells. Soon the whole side of the building was nothing but skinny bodies and bare buttocks. Ghosts used their feet to push off the heads of the ones below. Some slipped and fell to the floor of the yard. It was a stampede. But eventually everyone who wanted to get out did. And then the only ghosts left were the ones with nowhere better to be.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist