Sunday, 27 November 2016

Sometimes you simply need 800 pages to do a story justice – Andrew Crofts.


This month I spent a week with a client in Saigon, getting a feel for their life and for their city. I’ve not been before so my expectations had been largely shaped by Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, news coverage throughout my younger life and the musical, “Miss Saigon”.

It’s called Ho Chi Minh City now of course, but that doesn’t sound nearly as romantic. It is also sprouting tower blocks, making the riverside skyline indistinguishable from other Far Eastern boom towns from Hong Kong and Beijing to Singapore and Bangkok – or even Canary Wharf for that matter.

At street level, however, some of the old magic still simmers and steams in the wet heat. You can still sit at a pavement table outside the Continental Palace Hotel or in the roof bars of the Caravelle or the Majestic, and imagine Greene lurking in a corner. 

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A figure as obviously foreign as me will still be offered massages by street girls and shoe shine services by young entrepreneurs as he strolls around the city centre, dodging the million or so scooters and mopeds that swarm like noisy murmurs of starlings.

Although Vietnam was one of the key words on the lips of newsreaders for so much of my life, I realised I never really understood what had happened and since I always like to be reading a book about the places I visit while I am there I downloaded Saigon, a mighty saga by Anthony Grey.  

Had I gone to buy a print version I would undoubtedly have noticed that it was 800 pages long and might well have chickened out. I’m glad that didn’t happen. Mr. Grey told the ghastly history of the country through the stories of three families, one Vietnamese, one American and one French, making it gripping and digestible. By the time I visited the city’s horrific “war crimes” museum I was consequently much more able to understand the nuances behind the gruesome and shaming displays.

Normally I am a huge advocate of brevity and hate it when publishers ask authors to pad out books simply to make them look substantial, but sometimes you actually do need 800 pages to do a story like Saigon’s justice.

I was staying at the Intercontinental, one of the new towers, at the foot of which a small pedestrianised street ran through to their version of Nôtre Dame Cathedral. It was called “Book Street” because every shop was a small, open fronted bookshop, (apart from a couple of “book themed” coffee shops). The range of books available was not wide and most people seemed to be more interested in taking selfies than actually buying or reading any of them, but the buzz was energetic and charming and made me think that perhaps the international market for the printed word will continue to limp along for a little while yet.  



3 comments:

JO said...

Did you get out of Saigon at all, to see more of Vietnam - it's an amazing country. I agree that Saigon is a big Asian city, but life is very different in the countryside - which is beautiful, especially further north.

Wendy Jones said...

I like the sound of that book, 800 pages and all. I'm off to download it.

Andrew Crofts said...

No, Jo, I didn't go outside the city on this trip, apart from going to the industrial estates and suburbs where my client's story unfolds. I would definitely like to go back for a holiday to look at the countryside. I understand that Saigon is a very different thing to the rest of the country, a bit like Hong Kong is to the rest of China, or Manhattan to Middle America.