INDOCHINE By Christie Dickason Villard Books. 581 pp. $18.95
The literary wake that trails a war leaves a sea wrack of novels written by men seeking to purge themselves of the experience. War is the reason for the writing, and both man and place are devastated and dwarfed by it.
Later, when the war has moved from current event into history, other books bob into view -- epics in which the war is background rather than foreground. The death and destruction shape the characters and allow them to do things that would brand them as villains in peacetime, but in the epic it is not the war but the people who predominate. For the novelist capable of handling a complex set of characters, the war is a boon; it shatters the conventions and allows the writer to create situations that, in ordinary times, would have the reader hissing with disbelief.
How else would you be persuaded to accept that a well-bred teen-ager could turn into the queen of an opium empire without losing her niceness? In wartime, it becomes possible because Nina, the half-French, half-Vietnamese heroine of "Indochine," is as determined to survive as was Scarlett O'Hara, that earlier victim of civil war.
While her country is trying to expel the French and, later, the Americans, Nina is waging her own inner war, a little mademoiselle in crinolines trying to do honor to the ancestors of both her French mother and her Vietnamese father. The Vietnamese triumph at Dien Bien Phu and in Nina as well as her proper past is blown away by a bomb and she is thrown at age 15 into the streets of Saigon. The fighting has destroyed families and leveled neighborhoods, and the conventions of the past are useless in a world that is "an unfamiliar desert, so flat that Nina could not believe that houses had even stood there, densely packed together, filled with people engaged in the comfortable, petty actions of daily life ... Nina stepped around a twisted bicycle wheel projecting from a mass of broken masonry. The foot of the buried rider still wore its sandal."
Gradually Nina is able to piece together bits of her past, to make connections with old friends and to accept her role as stand-in for the father who has disappeared, running the opium empire whose import she only gradually comes to understand.
The poppy is at the center of "Indochine"; it is the sap from the pod that made Nina's father a rebel, as he saw his father killed by those who milked the peasants as thoroughly as the peasants milked the poppy. Author Christie Dickason takes the reader into the fields and the villages where the poppy grows, following the traders as they take the bales to market. And she sets Nina down in the center of the cartel that has divided the trade in Saigon, where she is watched mistrustfully by the Corsican Carbone and her cousin Col. Thu, an Asian Rambo living in swamps with his rebel band and arranging for the safe transport of the opium out of the mountains and into the city.
Dickason has managed to avoid presenting her drug dealers as stock villains, and her book has a depth that many such novels lack. Her characters are memorable, even peripheral figures such as the despicable Thin Pig, who teaches Nina the terrible amorality of her trade. Oddly, it is Nina's lover who is the weakest character, probably because he exists on the periphery of her world, an outsider with no connection to her childhood or her country.
The strongest male in the book is not the good-natured, patient lover, but an aging homosexual transvestite named Louis, a half-breed also, who has smoothed the roughness of his life with beautiful things and offers the same to Nina, patches for her soul, because "patches are all that we can control."
You would have to have been there to say whether Dickason has accurately portrayed wartime Saigon, but then it is from journalists that we demand accuracy. From novelists we want truth, and the world Christie Dickason has set forth in "Indochine" is not only fascinating, from beginning to end it is believable. The reviewer is a Washington critic and writer.