Savage, Lovable Faces

The Barking Deer, by Jonathan Rubin George Braziller, 245 pp., $7.95

IN THE CENTRAL HIGHLANDS of Vietnam live perhaps a million people from 33 non-Vietnamese tribes. Ethnic Vietnamese once called the tribesmen Moi--"savages"--but the French called them Montagnards, and the word stuck as a generic term, even though the tribesmen continued to think of themselves as members of individual villages, not a larger mountain culture.

The Montagnards never got along too well with the Vietnamese or wanted to assimilate with the rest of the country. In North Vietnam, tribesmen have their own autonomous areas, where local government and local schools work to nourish traditional roots. Outsiders have rarely shown much interest in them, except for military purposes. The American army in the 1960s sponsored and published several long and purportedly comprehensive studies of the tribes, which were relatively friendly to the United States. Along with the romantic accounts of French travelers (some tribesmen fought with the French against the Vietminh) the Army's studies are probably the most important source for Americans interested in them.

Most of the characters in Jonathan Rubin's The Barking Deer are members of the Rhade tribe, one of the largest (it numbers about 100,000 people) and most culturally "advanced" of all the tribes. Rubin's novel, set in 1964, involves an attack on the Rhade village of Buon Yun by the National Liberation Front.

RUBIN'S BUON YUN has had to make some adaptations to modern Vietnam: for instance, it's encircled by rows of fire-hardened bamboo spikes and anti-personnel mines set between two fences of nine-foot wooden stakes. But inside, people live much as they always have--the way the French travelers and the American Army's books said they lived, and the way Rubin knew them as a sergeant in the U.S. Special Forces from 1962 to 1964. There are about 30 longhouses in the village, with wooden piles underneath them to keep out floods and give the pigs, chickens and children a place to play. (When Americans and Saigon troops resettled Rhade tribesmen in small houses after taking their land for military purposes or for refugees from the North, they found that the Rhade slipped away, back to longhouses where there were neighbors to talk to.) Y Blo, the sorcerer, tries to keep the spirits friendly. Grandmother Pan, who divides up village land for cultivation though political leadership is in male hands, still helps out when there's a difficult birth. Y Gar, the hunter, hits monkeys and boar and barking deer almost as often as he misses, so expert is he at reading the hidden significance of birdcalls and at shooting his suju-wood crossbow.

The children of the village help out at rice planting and harvesting, but they also fly kites, walk on stilts, play with tops. Their parents, Rubin says, treat them as adult reincarnations of adults. (Rhade tribesmen are supposed to love children so much that they used to buy Vietnamese children to raise as their own; but almost 70 per cent of their children die before their first birthday--of malaria, intestinal parasites, and skin diseases caused by poor sanitation.)

But the lives of Rubin's Rhade are no longer determined just by their own actions, even combined with the weather and the poverty and lack of sanitation that kill their children. Outsiders affect their lives too, now--Buc, the barber who joined the NLF when he learned that the Saigon government was encouraging men to grow their hair long; Sergeant Culpepper, the medic who solemnly affirms that American medicine is as good as scorpion urine; Colonel Quoc, ambitious and rising fast in the Saigon command but terrified of his astrology chart and unwilling to endanger his career by resisting an NLF attack. It becomes apparent, slowly (but quicker than it should, since Rubin at his subtlest is pretty elephantine), that these and other people's interaction is building towards a catastrophe: the destruction of Buon Yun and the American soldiers it welcomed at the hands of an NLF assault team and a miscalculating American bomber pilot.

The catastrophe doesn't rule out heroism--in fact, even Colonel Quoc has his moments of humanity. "I'm not really so terrible," he tells an American colleague. "Sometimes when I pass a beggar I don't spit, and maybe even give him a coin." Fighter Kim, tortured by Americans determined to find out who blew up their friends the week before, strangles a companion whose capacity for resistance he doubts, slits his own wrists and lies down quietly to die. And Grandmother Pan survives the catastrophe to rummage among the rubble for her husband's legs. Maybe in certain circumstances just to survive is heroic--though if that's so, maybe heroism isn't worthwhile.

The Barking Deer isn't a good novel. The completeness of the catastrophe seems a little contrived, and so does a lot of the rest of the plot. The whole book is fairly badly written, with uniformly short, monotonous sentences that often lack verbs. Sometimes this seems to be an attempt at ironic distancing--for instance, Rubin sometimes tries without success to tell us what Vietnamese think Americans think Vietnamese are thinking--but most times it seems to be just the way Rubin writes. Partly as a result of his syntax and partly because of the childish-sounding exclamations with which he dots their speech, Rubin's Rhade only intermittently attain the dignity they need to make us fully care for them--a dignity we do sense, for instance, hearing about the days when the sky was so low that fish could nibble at the stars when the water rose, when the Rhade's ancestor laughed at his father and had to run away and live with no clothes:

'And the younger son?'

'He founded the race of Vietnamese. And that's how we came to be different from them and why they strut.'

'You should not have laughed.'

'We should not have laughed,' conceded little Rhadeo, 'but it has been many years with no clothes for just one laugh.'

HADEO'S LEGEND SUGGESTS possible inadequacy in Rubin's idea of Vietnam as a whole, too. He carefully draws parallels between the two sides in the conflict: the legendary barking deer of the title, for instance, was torn apart by an eagle and a tiger; and in two scenes that frame Rubin's main story, a North Vietnamese and an American colonel seek reassurance against overly callous commanding officers from photographs of their countries' faraway presidents. But Rubin's own account undercuts the parallelism--it's hard to imagine anyone saying of Lyndon Johnson, as he says of Ho Chi Minh, that "he had a sweet face... a lovable face." And by Rubin's own account--which therefore takes on, as long as the American-financed war in Vietnam continues, some value for American readers--there are things in Vietnam genuinely worth fighting for and in which one side (not the American-financed side) has shown some interest. Clothes for the Rhade, for instance, laugh or no laugh, and a world in which their children won't die in infancy.

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