Book Review – Saigon Calling by Marcelino Truong (Arsenal Pulp Press 2017)

This is the second memoir/history of the Vietnam war in graphic novel form by Marcelino Truong, which has been translated by David Homel.  It covers the period 1963 to 1975 when the Truong family lived in London following a move from Saigon.

Marcelino is the son a Khanh, a Vietnamese diplomat and Yvette.  His family includes his sisters, Mireille and Anh-Noelle and his brother Dominique.

The book tells the story of the Truong’s life and struggles in London against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.  The family are challenged by Yvette’s mental illness, which frequently led to angry outbursts against her husband Khanh, the constant concern about grandparents still living in Saigon and growing up in an alien (and alienating) London.

Whilst the music, fashions and recreational drug-habits of counter-culture ‘swinging’ London were alluring to the young Truong children, the dullness, constraints and casual racism they experienced in the suburbs were depressingly real.  Marcelino is very close to his older brother Dominique who is enthralled by the counter-culture and, ultimately, by Indian mysticism.

The story is told in chapter form where a particular event or anecdote from the family or Marcelino’s personal life is highlighted.  Interspersed are details of the intensifying Vietnam War and the ultimate victory of North Vietnam following the withdrawal of U.S. troops and support.

A lot of information concerning the war and the key political players in Vietnam and the U.S.  are provided.  Expository dumps are probably necessary to help the reader but it does appear like one of the old graphic ‘beginner’s guides’ in places and gives rise to some very stilted dialogue where characters have unlikely conversations explaining to each other political machinations or the progress of the war.  It can feel hard going at times which prevents the natural flow.

The artwork is nicely drawn and has lovely colour.  Explanatory pieces about the Vietnam war are coloured in more muted tones of sepia, grey and black.    Characters are quite angular and it would be hard to identify some of the more famous characters, such as Presidents Johnson and Ford, without text highlighting who they are.

Marcelino Truong repeatedly makes the important points that the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong carried out atrocities and were duplicitous as well as the fact that many people in South Vietnam were anti-communist.  These views were often overlooked or brushed aside by some liberals at the time who were enchanted by the promises of Communism.  Truong was obviously very irritated by the championing of the North Vietnamese regime by anti-imperialists and others but it does feel like fighting an old battle given the extensive examination of the Vietnam War in the years since it finished.

Ultimately this is an interesting, if not gripping, story.