United by wars against the United States, yet divided by the economic results and effects of those wars, Vietnam and Japan are the real subjects of Aska Mochizuki’s Knopf Kodansha Prize-winning novel “Spinning Tropics.”
Set in Ho Chih Minh City, the narrative concerns the complications of a woman-woman-man love affair underscored by detailed observations of Vietnamese life, politics and culture.
Tokyoite Hiro Azuma, in her 20s, working in Vietnam as a Japanese- language teacher, meets Yun, a beautiful, uncompromising, outgoing and ambitious young Vietnamese woman with a desire to learn Japanese in order to economically assist her family. Neither is quite ready for the love that emerges between them.
Correspondingly, the novel highlights the degrees of preparedness of Asian countries for rampant capitalism and the absorption of American culture.
Mochizuki astutely demonstrates the differences between Vietnamese and Japanese culture — punctuality, work ethic, family — with specific emphasis on contrasting and comparing Vietnamese, English and Japanese, and the difficulties each nationality finds with foreign languages. There are various asides on the weather, traffic, food, gambling, gender, religion, shopping and dating, the author’s observations often humorous and pithy.
The writing on relationships between teachers and students reads as real-life experience, and the translator, Wayne P. Lambers, renders the dialogue convincingly and naturalistically. The comic set-piece classroom scenes emphasize the diversity and idiosyncrasies of language, gender, race and culture.
Analysis of the aftereffects of the Vietnam War, used subtly to expose the economic reality of Vietnam — the “Japanese Miracle” partly funded by Japan’s involvement in the war — also explains the financial, marital and sexual stasis of women. Yun’s sisters cover the range of economic possibilities available to Vietnamese women: earning money in Australia and Taiwan (as part of the Vietnamese diaspora), living at home with extended families, working for the state, or becoming prostitutes.
The city landscape, peopled by 9-year old masseurs, beggars and amputees, and redolent with papaya, green coconuts and hemorrhoid cream (skip this part if you are squeamish), is sexually charged and the two women form an erotic relationship, together exploring each other’s body and the city that forged their forbidden love.
At a party, Hiro meets Konno, a businessman who reminds her of one of her mother’s ex-lovers. They arrange a date. Yun becomes jealous, but Hiro professes her love for Yun and the women go about their lives cooking, gossiping and entertaining friends — until the police find out about their illicit cohabitation.
Hiro moves into a single-room apartment, and the author uses this episode to delineate the disparity between Japanese state freedom and policing and the power and corruption of Vietnamese law enforcement.
Unexpectedly, Yun disappears for two days then texts Hiro that they are finished as a couple because of Konno. Yun, on her part, has formed a relationship with a male language teacher Takahashi. Hiro, confused about her feelings, allows Konno to seduce her. As the novel progresses and relationships develop, the author insists that sex is not enough, or that sex between man and woman and woman and woman are distinct and separate, that love is not built purely around our eroticization of partners and that, no matter how much we think we know someone, secrets are all powerful.
Some chapters could have been more seamlessly incorporated — the visit to the War Remnants Museum is clunky and didactic, and some of the facts about Vietnam are presented flatly.
Overall, though, “Spinning Tropics” successfully portrays Ho Chih Minh City and the confusions that arise in love, relationships, nationality and language. Accompanying the strong story line are acute observations on sex, food and economics.