She longs to feel alive, to record history, to honor the dead, to make amends. Helen, Tatjana Soli’s main character in
the The Lotus Eaters, is a young photojournalist during the Vietnam War. Soli begins her novel in the year 1975 upon the fall of Saigon and creatively works the narrative back to the beginning of Helen’s story and the War. Helen arrives in Saigon in 1965, naïve, ambivalent, and wistful over the death of her brother, a life lost to war as was her father’s. A lone woman amongst a bevy of male photojournalists, she struggles to prove herself, to demonstrate her courage, and to become accustomed to the “dirty and sad and tawdry” environment that was Saigon. Over time, Helen manages to learn how to endure the utter catastrophe of Vietnam. And like a narcotic, the War becomes so ingrained in her psyche, Vietnam so etched in her identity, she can no longer pull away or separate herself from it. Like the lotus eaters of Homer’s Odyssey.
This is what happened when one left one’s home – pieces of oneself scattered all over the world, no one place ever completely satisfied, always a nostalgia for the place left behind.”
These haunting words are an ode to those people scattered all over the world who are similarly in search of a place left behind, of times gone by, and essentially of themselves.
Of course, there is a profound difference in leaving your home to war vs. migration for a new or better life. Yet that visceral longing is quite the same. While I related to her feeling, I was struck by Helen’s attachment to Vietnam despite the darkness, the violence and death that continued to claim lives, even the lives of those she came to love. What was it that drew her in so deep? Soli presents a supporting cast of characters (journalists) who do not necessarily exhibit the same passion for this foreign land. Instead, many of them are seemingly selfish in their desire for awards and in their conviction that the “war doesn’t have to end for them.” Still, they raise many critical questions about war journalism and their ability to make a change in public (mis)perceptions about the War.
I saw Helen as a brave female figure at the beginning of the novel whereas I found myself angry with her towards the end. I was irritated with her selfishness and her inability to see beyond her desire to “record history.” I often found her to be presumptuous and self-sacrificial for the mere sake of fulfilling her personal goals. It was on rare accounts that she expressed motivations that were embedded in a belief that her work was providing raw, real images of the horrors of the War. Morally, she remained ambivalent for much of the novel, succumbing to the addiction of her profession. And amidst this backdrop is also a tumultuous love affair that is very much at the core of the story. It defines and shapes Helen and her relationship to the War and to Vietnam.
Soli’s writing is clear yet poetic. She provides vivid imagery of the landscapes, the smells, the people, and also raw descriptions of the violence of combat. Despite the harrowing history of this country, her words come off the page, making it all tragic and beautiful, and evoking a strong desire to know. To understand why some places are so scorned by fate despite their inherent beauty and will.
Read also the New York Times review of The Lotus Eaters by Janet Maslin