Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, ‘A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain’, is a remarkable collection of short stories by Robert Olen Butler. The stories are in the voices of people from Vietnam who in the aftermath of the carnage wreaked by the infamous Vietnam War, find solace in the vast expanse of America. The fictitious narrative even though emanating from New Orleans and Louisiana still echoes the perspectives of distant Saigon, and Hanoi. Deep, introspective and vibrant each of these stories discards apparent syllogisms for refreshing eye openers.
A common thread stitching every story together and binding diverse characters in an unusually unified bond, is a total recognition of the futility of war. From the former soldier hidden in the depths of darkness in the jungles of Vietnam, waiting to kill his adversary before he himself can be murdered, to the helpless wives of every combatant who with a sense of reticence accept the difficult fate of their husbands, every protagonist is resigned to berating yet accepting the senseless purpose of armed conflict. Even as they leave the war and consequently their country behind the scars of battle are never too far away. Even a comfortable existence in the ‘land of dreams’ does not bestow upon these immigrants a salve to ease their physical and psychological wounds. As they go about their day to day activities in monotonous fashion, ghosts of a traumatic past continue to haunt them.
While there have been innumerable books dealing with the Vietnamese perspective of the catastrophe that besieged this nation severing the North from the South, no one does justice to the sentiments of this South East Asian nation than Robert Olen Butler. There is an immediate connect to character, content and context. The uniqueness of every story and its attendant perspective sets Butler apart from many of his peers and contemporaries. The struggles faced by a closely knit community viewed as aliens by the very people who were also their supposed liberators lends a completely rare credence to this fantastic collection. Just to demonstrate his versatility, Butler also throws in this interesting mix of stories, an element of horror. This particular story is a wee bit disappointing although assisting in taking the weight of profundity off a reader’s shoulder. A couple of stories are long drawn (such as “The American Couple” and “A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain”), but gripping nonetheless.
“A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain” – A Whiff of sheer Artistry!