Le Thi Diem Thuy elevates with the great intrigue gentility of memoirs of the family lost in her beautifully articulated work of fiction “The gangster we are all looking for.” Writer explicitly prepares us in the beginning itself to experience characters mixed emotions of lost memories and of estrangement and dislodgment and the emotional turmoil’s. As the calmness of the water in ocean is often perturbed by the storms and as is our life, so is the life of the characters. Water has the most crucial role to play and is one of the main motives with on one hand juxtaposing with the emotions of the characters while on the other hand playing most symbolic role in different ways in the text. Water on one hand is a unifying medium while on the other hand is also a dividing force. Following essay is a ramification of the tale of the tragedy of the protagonists with analysis on how water is so an integral part of the lives of Vietnamese and how it is so associated with all their sorrows, struggles, traumatized events, dissociation and even final happiness.
Writer makes us aware of the fact that in Vietnam “the word for water and the word for a nation, a country and a homeland are one and the same: nu’o’c.” (Quote) Moreover water is not anything just a literal figure but also a symbol of every facet of the life of Vietnamese. It is through water they identify themselves and it is what that unites them, separates them, and makes a beginning and an end. While they are traveling to United States together, narrator states that “Ba (her father) and I were connected to the four uncles, not by blood but by water (2003, p. 3).” While traveling by the sea all of them are linked together into one common bond, and this is made possible by water and it is this water that has separated her from her mother. When Ba tells protagonist that Ma cannot be found at the beach in San Diego, CA but in Vietnam, she honestly asks, “What was the difference?” (2003, p. 13). There is a difference; this difference is between the shores found by the protagonists and others as their way to show their alienation from their near ones and their separation. It is their alienation that comes from across the shores.
The novel though is written in present tense yet reveals the memories of the protagonists. It begins from the time when narrator is spending her life with her parents in the United States and then goes in the very next paragraph back to the point when how she, her aunt and her four uncles “floated across the sea (2003, p.1)” towards Singapore, and then towards California. Where in one paragraph, she captures the time fast when actual migration takes place from the shores of Vietnam towards United States of America while on the other hand she is able to reveal among the readers all the difficulties they have to face during the journey.
Whole through the novel, we can feel the presence of sea. We can see bodies are washing away across the shore at the first page itself and they are seen washing on the shore even in the last page. We can also see and feel romantic passion when a man asks his beloved if she marries him, “he would pull the moon out of the sky and turn it into a pool for her to wash her feet in. (2003, p. 156)” On the other hand, water also becomes a cause and sign of mis-happening because when a young boy dies, the blame goes to the “bad water. (2003, p. 130)” Along with that glass of water is drunk “desperately, as though it were a reprieve. (2003, p. 138)” Among Vietnamese, family is the main force that keeps each of the members connected even in the alien society of America. All the members are trying to come together even though with the American dreams in their eyes. As they are trying to adjust in the American ways, they still themselves remain connected to each other, with no doubt not because of the blood but of water.
For a narrator, water is also a place she as a child would take shelter and feel relaxed, and also a symbol of freedom and joyous moments of life. The narrator also describes water as a source of liberation and a place of refuge. When she is a child, she sees some elder boys from her neighborhood “diving off the second-floor railing into the swimming pool in the courtyard below” (2003, p. 43). Her curiosity too increases and she begins to feel as if she is flying and jumping inside the water. She watches the boys disappearing into the water and reappearing again as if all is an imagination. This whole act of jumping inside the water and appearing again is a sign of liberation. When landlord gets the whole pool emptied, the residents feel themselves robbed of that joyous moments and coolness they used to feel near the pool. Whenever narrator would see her parents quarrelling, she would just lock herself inside the bathroom and would submerge herself in the tub so as not to hear their quarrels.
Water also surfaces in the darkest moments of their life, as she explains her brother was pulled out of the sea, “brother’s body was pulled from the South China Sea and left lying on the beach to dry” (2003, p. 126). In the story, sea is a symbol of their grief as it takes the life of her brother. Narrator would also refer to the water to show the tears and grief of the narrator, for e.g. she compares the tears of her father in the refugee camp like “a flood of tears rushing” towards them (2003, p. 109). We can very well feel how helpless and sad all uncles are feeling as they say, “But what does crying mean in this country? Your Ba cries in the garden every night and nothing comes of it (2003, p. 27).”
All characters in the novel are trying to adjust themselves in the American society and searching for their own identity at the same time through looking themselves inside the water. On many occasions, narrator also finds herself looking at the darkness like when she is sailing in the fishing boat and waiting for her father to return with her mother. She also tries to forget the tragic moments of her life and tries to erase them from her memories. The major part of the novel is perceived through the eyes of the protagonist through the past reflections and images, just like a long poem. She looks at the world as a pessimistic and a sad figure perceiving the past events of the life.
The whole novel is that of tragedy, sadness and grit but the way it is told shows the sensibility of the author. It is no doubt an elegiac work of fiction creating skillfully a different assortment of life of a Vietnamese family. They come on a boat from Vietnam in United States and settle themselves in the alien land is worth notifying. On one surface, we can see their present life while on the other surface about their past and in both the occasions, they find themselves connected to their roots and that is ‘water’. Whole of their life starts with the water and ends with the water with various moments of happiness and sad all are linked to the water as if it is their soul and their each rhythm of beating hearts. “The gangster we are all looking for” is no doubt a novel of fiction but we can feel the rhythm of life in it through the various emotions of characters and through the withering different flows of waters’.
Thuy, Le Thi Diem. (2003). The gangster we are all looking for. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.