Book Reviews

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The Tiger General

The Memoirs of a Vietnamese Intelligence Chief

by John Havan

2011, 440 pp., 22 x 14 cm., softcover.

ISBN-13: 978-974-524-135-0 $19.95


Book review by Ezra Kyrill Erker

(Bangkok Post: Arts & Culture January 29, 2012)

Novelist John Havan convinces and compels with his faux memoir of an intelligence chief’s—and Vietnam’s—vicissitudes, defeats and victories in a time of rapid change

On the cover it’s a memoir, the foreword says the book is indebted to its main subject and the copyright page claims it’s a work of fiction. The Tiger General is certainly too accurate in its historical, cultural and espionage details for the characters to be entirely invented, and with a complete absorption in time and place difficult to pull off with such precision in fiction.
   The 20th century saw probably the most extreme and varied applications of political systems in human history, with Vietnam seeing more than its fair share of colonialist oppression, landlordism, communist upheavals, foreign-backed strongmen and civil and international war.
   Against this backdrop is the story of Hai, illegitimate son of a powerful womanising mandarin of the Hue court (who is the subject of a prequel to this book, Mandarin: A Novel of Viet Nam) and a poor village girl. They escape to the capital, where his mother’s resourcefulness helps them find sanctuary first in a convent; then in a French family’s home, where Hai learns the occupiers’ language; and later under a Hanoi bridge, where Hai meets Helene, a mixed-race prostitute with a harelip who becomes his soulmate.
   An astrologer warns his mother early on that the boy has three unlucky stars, each responsible for 12 years of Hai’s life—if he can get past the first 36 years of discontent he will start to shine.
   So through the French occupation, World War I and World War II, the Japanese occupation and the French and American wars, Hai goes from being a beggar and pickpocket to a member of the communist underground resistance to smuggler to French police informer to Japanese police analyst to French intelligence agent. His skills and intelligence see him rise quickly in every hierarchy he enters—though always stopping short of the top. He seems a natural second-in-command, influencing events from just beyond the spotlight. Although there are many pages of discourse on politics, his ideology seems considered and calculated but nevertheless confused.
   He initially works for the communists “because I needed a job”, as he explains to Papa, a French intelligence officer who once adopted him and his mother. He is a nationalist but becomes disillusioned with the Viet Minh, so he switches sides and works for the French, which somehow makes sense in his scheme of things.
   “A good cause can turn bad if its policies do not change with the times,” he explains, “and a bad one at the start can become good if its policies adapt to the times.”
   The ambiguities of the time certainly play their part. In every organisation or gang Hai fights in, changes in politics see the political landscape change completely around him. The Japanese take over during World War II (“Absolute discipline, readily enforced by the sword, allowed a handful of Japanese to dominate millions of Vietnamese and thousands of French still in Viet Nam.”) so he has no choice but to work for them. Or he has choices but often takes the one of least resistance and most gain—again calculated, even unimpassioned.
As he points out, “The best of causes had been used throughout history to mask the worst of policies. France’s democratic liberte-egalite-fraternite at home had turned into colonisation abroad; the Soviet Union Party’s dream of a socialist paradise had turned into a reign of mass mobilisation and terror.”
   Although a nationalist, he couldn’t condone mass executions by the North. “Millions of landless peasants watched in open-mouthed horror as thin, emaciated peasants like themselves were labelled landlords and beaten to death in public in the village square.”
   At 36, as predicted, his rise is steep. Hai is recruited by the local version of the CIA, decorated as a police general, and cuts through his enemies after the Tet Offensive.
   As an intelligence officer, “He lied to them about his motives, and they lied to him about what they knew, and in the middle of all this deliberate but acceptable deception and subterfuge lay a kernel of truth.”
   When he works for the CIO (Central Intelligence Organisation, a clone of the CIA set up in south Vietnam by the CIA) the narration is full of astute observations on why the US approach is destined to fail: “It was a very American plan; simple, practical and expedient, a plan for people who were in a hurry to get things done. Like most American plans, it didn’t take into consideration the social and cultural issues involved.”
   During and after the war, Hai gives nothing away, carefully shielding himself from being influenced too much by any of the factions he works for or against. He is ruthless, determined, unlikeable even. “It built up his mystique as conspiracy theorists tried to work out why he was still being kept on if he were really a traitor, a double agent, a spy and a plant.”
   He ends his career with the US State Department.
   There are some slight style and timeline inconsistencies and typographical errors in Tiger General that could be smoothed out in future editions, and the flurry of Vietnamese and intelligence terms and acronyms can be slightly overwhelming for the uninitiated. Sometimes dialogue can be a little stilted in order to set the scene and describe the characters’ motivations. Nevertheless, these are small points in a wholly convincing narrative, written with much heart and precision and so much detail and setting of the scene that we’re enveloped in Hai’s story, from newborn cub to Tiger General.

[Read an interview of the author by The Bangkok Post] [More Orchid Press Reviews]