Is it any wonder that the main sensory experience of reading Chinatown is a sort of claustrophobic discomfort?...I would sit down with the novel and, after an hour or so, find myself yawning furiously or falling into a trance indistinguishable from the half-sleep one enters on an extremely long bus ride...But that feels like the point: the narrator’s life is about as confined and isolated and marginal as you can get...She’s sardonic about the racism of her fellow teachers, whose distaste for her 'stress-inducing face' keeps her out of sight when she’s at work...I mentioned above that the narrator is unnamed, but in fact everyone she knows in France calls her Madame Âu — Thụy’s last name, and an ethnically Chinese one...Yet she doesn’t have any real connection to the Chinese French community in the thirteenth arrondissement: 'I can hardly run to them, grasp their hands and say, my husband is also ethnically Chinese'...She can’t afford to live in the neighborhood, anyway — instead, she commutes there by bus from Belleville to buy roast pigeon for Vĩnh...In one of her dreams she yells, “bù shì yuènán rén” ('I’m not Vietnamese' in Mandarin); in another, “bù shì zhōngguó rén” ('I’m not Chinese')...The narrator is doubly marginal, disconnected from any kind of community, having rejected her own nationality for her husband, only for him to reject her...Then, of course, there’s the fact that during the course of the book itself she’s immobile, literally trapped in a train car that’s neither departed nor arrived...Chinatown’s first and last sentences are rigid bookends that state the time on the narrator’s watch: the novel takes place over precisely two hours...Chinatown is sad, yes, but it’s also a delightfully prickly and defiantly inscrutable act of resistance: against simple narratives, against our aversion to what we don’t understand, and against anything soullessly practical...It insists that we make space for the things that don’t make sense, most of all our absurd dreams and longings.
Thuận deftly balances her complex content with a wryly confiding style. Making its English debut via Nguyễn An Lý’s incantatory translation, Chinatown’s generic title is deceptive, its compact length trapping layers of tensions to illustrate how political struggles in the public realm mirror emotional struggles in personal relationships. Subversive yet casually framed like a run-on conversation between friends, Thuận’s novel explores various iterations of Chinatown to convey exile, alienation, oppression, and artistic freedom ... This novel-within-a-novel structure embodies the ambiguous push-pull between oppression and freedom: Thuận’s protagonist roams ceaselessly yet neurotically in her imagination even as the main action is confined in both time and space.
In cubist prose, Thuận returns to the same sentences and phrases in imitation of the way the mind perseverates, loops back on itself, and returns to seminal memories again and again ... Author Thuận, who lives in France, recreates the rich texture of the past as it exists for those severed from their origins, a layering of memories, historical eras, and personal milestones that shifts and melds ... Translator Nguyễn An Lý seamlessly recreates the complicated flow of the narrator’s thoughts, nimbly incorporating the subtle changes in tense and viewpoint that are crucial to the interior monologue. Deftly navigating the cacophony of cultures — from untranslated Vietnamese and Mandarin words, Iron Curtain-era historical references, memories of Soviet Russia, and present-day Paris with its multicultural manifestations of France’s colonial past — Nguyễn never breaks the fragile thread of coherency ... a dense meditation on history, colonialism, ethnic identity, novel writing, love, and belonging. The lack of white space on the page and the associative chain of ideas that build one upon the other make for challenging reading, especially as the narrator builds to a hallucinatory climax. Those who persist to the end will be rewarded with a powerful take on the immigrant’s tale that interrogates the intricate veil of history through which we endow our lives with meaning.