What you need to know:
Title: A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
Writer: Robert Olen Butler
Year of Publication: 1992
Reviewer: Faith Oneya
If you have ever been curious about the effects of war, then the Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler will satisfy any questions you might ever have had.
The enthralling stories, totalling 15, tell the story of the Vietnam war from the perspective of the Vietnamese.
The author takes on different voices, different points of view, peeling, layer by layer, the intricacies and delicate beauty of the Vietnamese culture and people.
Reading the stories makes one feel like they are intruding into the private and sacred thoughts of strangers.
In one of the stories, simply titled Love, the main character, a former spy, spies on his beautiful wife, Buom (which means butterfly) and when he discovers she has taken on a lover, decides to see a certain Doctor Joseph. A voodoo doctor. His wife, the man tells the Doctor, is worth bringing fire from heaven. For that, the man must add goat poo to a concoction from the Doctor and throw it over the house of his wife’s lover. Let’s just say the poor man ends up in hospital and keeps his wife.
The stories are expertly woven, each one leaving the reader with a cocktail of emotions and a growing curiosity of a country where “women are afraid of going out into the sun because it will darken their skin and make them look like peasants”.
“I must visit Vietnam,” I WhatsApped a friend as soon as I was done reading the book.
The richness of the Vietnamese culture is evident from the luscious descriptions of the landscapes, women, men, food and traditions.
But more than that, the book also gives us a front-row seat to the gaze of the Vietnamese people affected by the Vietnam War on the American culture.
Themes like love, displacement, identity (in one of the stories, a man grapples with the acute pain of knowing that his son despised the Vietnamese culture and language), pain, suffering and survival co-exist in this 250-page book.
In a 1961 interview with New York Times reporter James Reston, President John Kennedy said “Now we have a problem in trying to make our power credible, and Vietnam looks like the place” and in its own way, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain examines the cost of that decision.