Catfish and Mandala

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9780006552239: Catfish and Mandala

‘Jack Kerouac meets “Wild Swans”.’ The Times. A voyage through Vietnam’s ghost-ridden landscape, at once a moving memoir, travelogue and compelling search for identity.

Vietnamese-born Andrew Pham finally returns to Saigon, not as a success showering money and gifts onto his family, but as an emotional shipwreck, desperate to find out who he really is. When his sister, a post-operative transsexual, committed suicide, Pham sold all his possessions and embarked on a year-long bicycle journey that took him through the Mexican desert; around a thousand-mile loop from Narita to Kyoto in Japan; and, after five months and 2,357 miles, to Saigon, where he finds ‘nothing familiar in the bombed-out darkness’. At first meant to facilitate forgetfulness, Pham’s travels turn into an unforgettable, eye-opening search for cultural identity which flashes back to his parent’s courtship in Vietnam, his father’s imprisonment by the Vietcong, and his family’s nail-bitingly narrow escape as ‘boat people’.

Lucid, witty and beautifully written, ‘Catfish and Mandala’ evokes a Vietnam you can almost smell and taste, laying bare the psyche of a troubled hero whose search for home and identity becomes our own.

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Review:

"America is full of young old Vietnamese, uncentred, uncertain of their identity. The old generation calls them mat goch--lost roots", writes Andrew Pham. He should know: he was one of them, describing himself as "the rootless one." One day--unable to hold down the engineering career his father encouraged--he left California on a cheap bicycle to search for his roots. Catfish and Mandala is his memoir of these travels.

Catfish And Mandala is the Vietnam story from a different perspective. When Nam vets apologise to Pham for what they did to "his people" he feels fraudulent, "Who are my people?". For his family, it was the Americans pulling out which caused the most hardship. His father, an army officer, was imprisoned by the Vietcong, narrowly escaping death. The family made a terrifying escape by boat to become refugees when Pham was just 10 ("America fished us out of the ocean like drowning cockroaches and fed us and clothed us ... ")

Catfish And Mandala is as much an autobiography as a travel book, jumping back and forth between Pham's adult cycle adventure through his lost homeland and his childhood memories. As Pham freely admits, he feels American, yet to Americans he is an Asian but in Vietnam he is an outsider too ( a privileged "Viet-kieu"--foreign Vietnamese). He remains deeply confused and has overwhelming guilty about almost everything---those left behind, his dead sister, the Americans who died, the Vietnamese who died and the poverty of those he meets in Vietnam now. It's painful but moving to read. You'll find yourself caught up in his agony. His writing is so beautiful and poetic that it draws you into his history until you feel he is an old friend.

This wonderful book both modernises the classic beatnik notion of a search for identity and brings alive the sensory rollercoaster of Vietnam--from the fish sauce town of Phan Tiet to Saigon's helter-skelter of cycles. --Sarah Champion

Review:

‘Pham’s vivid testimony of personal and cultural reconciliation enriches significantly the burgeoning Vietnamese-American canon, and travel literature in general.’ TLS

‘Thoreau, Theroux, Kerouac, Steinbeck and Mark Twain – the roster of those who have turned to their travels for inspiration includes some of America’s most noted scribes. Now add Andrew X. Pham to the list…”Catfish and Mandala” records a remarkable odyssey across landscape and into memory.’ Barbara Lloyd McMichael, Seattle Times

’An acute and evocative writer; the result is a rough guide to make the “Rough Guide to Vietnam” sound like the obscene lap of luxury. His tale is interwoven with a finely calibrated network of flashbacks in which war, imprisonment, escape and exile are shown to leave their indelible mark on everyone…Terrible and graphic, the book is as much about the future as the past: every event is scrutinised for what it may portend. The real power of “Catfish and Mandala” is visceral. Pham records his encounters with beggars, sadists, prostitutes and simple country folk with a bursting heart and a Dickensian eye for detail.’ Independent

‘The people, the landscapes, the poverty and grime of Vietnam live for us through this powerful memoir of grief, full of both comic and painful adventures.’ Elle

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