The Lotus Eaters, by Tatjana Soli is a story of a woman photo-reporter in Vietnam at the end of the American’s war.
Tatjana Soli litters her book with literary allusions, which is what you might expect from a graduate of a prestigious writing program. First of all, her protagonist is called Helen, and the reporter Darrow draws the analogy, quoting Homer: “Catching sight of Helen moving along the ramparts, who on earth could blame them?” This is Helen on the walls of Troy, watching her husbands fighting. Darrow is setting up Helen to be the betrayer, or rather Tatjana Soli is. Helen sees a long burled scar on Darrow’s arm, and this reminds us of the scar born by Odysseus by which Penelope, his faithful wife, recognises him when he returns, disguised as a beggar, from the Trojan War, ostensibly fought to reclaim Helen (so-called, of Troy). Helen in the Lotus Eater is the lover of several men, like Helen of Troy, but Lotus Eater Helen’s commitment is more to reporting the Vietnam conflict than to her lovers, just as the Greek Helen’s commitment was more to enslaving men to her beauty. Darrow later refers to Helen of the thousand ships. And Helen, returning to her hotel room, throws Graham Greene’s book, the Quiet American, in the bin. The room boy retrieves it: she longs to lose herself in Fowler’s certainties and Pyle’s innocence. The books, Greene’s and Soli’s, are a Greek myth: the companionship of men who have different views of the world, but are, in the modern terms, buddies, at least for a time; the women who come between them; the corruption of the armed struggle; the failure of religion. Soli’s book is a challenge to read again the story of the Iliad, the war against Troy, and Graham Greene’s story of the way the French failed to retain their colony, and how the United States became drawn into the quagmire of their Vietnam war, and were ultimately, inevitably, defeated. The greatest nation on earth defeated by peasants armed with rifles, against which their technical superiority was powerless. Greene’s novel was vilified by Americans, the CIA kept him under surveillance, and there is even a story that the United States persuaded the Nobel Council not to award him their prize for literature. That must be paranoia, surely?
Throughout the novel, men die. It is what happens in a war, even to reporters. Helen nearly dies, several times. What keeps Helen going is the same thing that kept Fowler going in Graham Green’s novel: the inability to drag herself away from Vietnam, the scene of the action. Like Odysseus’ comrades, they do not wish to leave the country of the lotus eaters. When she does do so, she has a breakdown, and has to return.
And there’s the problem of women. Women confuse and distract men in war. In Graham Greene’s novel, the distraction is a beautiful Vietnamese taxi dancer. In Soli’s book, it is Helen, a reporter herself. Both of them are ambivalent about what they want from men, and how they should behave to the men who pursue them. This is a well-developed strophe in novels, from Becky Sharpe in Vanity Fair to Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Soli does well to be up-front about Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American. She tells us that Helen has a copy of it, has read it many times, as otherwise someone would be bound to point out the parallels between The Lotus Eater and The Quiet American, getting uncomfortably close to plagiarism sometimes. Oddly, though, she speaks of Fowler’s certainties and Pyle’s innocence. Fowler is the hard-bitten English reporter, cynical and uncertain of everything, living with his Vietnamese girl Phuong, who he deceives, telling her that his English wife, called Helen (is this simply a coincidence?), may give him a divorce so that he can marry Phuong. Pyle is the American Aid worker who thinks he loves Phuong, offers to marry her, but Pyle blunders about causing mayhem through his failure to be less innocent about the motives of his Vietnamese allies, leading to an awful scene of carnage in which many innocent Vietnamese are killed, but which Pyle uses to persuade the US Congress to extend US involvement in Vietnam. The Quiet American, like The Lotus Eaters, is a novel of betrayal. Linh, Helen’s Vietnamese lover, is an ambivalent character, a former soldier in the North Vietnamese Army, now working with the Americans, but with a foot in both camps. He is, above all else, a Vietnamese.
Men are killed, McCrae, then Darrow. Helen becomes Darrow’s lover, and Darrow is killed. Helen becomes Linh’s lover, and marries him, and Linh is seriously wounded. He almost dies. Phuong becomes Pyle’s lover, and he is killed, and Phuong returns to Fowler and reads her books about the British Royal Family.
The other thing that is interesting about the book is the structure of its time. We start with what was probably intended originally to be the ending, but then was changed to Linh, Helen’s last lover, being evacuated from Vietnam when the Viet Minh over-run Saigon, while Helen remains behind to go the Cambodia. Then we go back to Helen arriving in Vietnam, and then the book moves back and forth in time. This is also the time structure of The Quiet American which starts with the death of Pyle, killed with the complicity of Fowler, and then we move back in time to find out how they go to this point.
The last part of the book, Helen remaining behind while Linh was evacuated, was a mistake. The events are rushed, and the ending is still unsatisfactory. It would be very difficult to have a satisfactory ending, except in one way. The ending of The Quiet American is unsatisfactory: Fowler’s wife Helen agrees to give him a divorce, in spite of her High Church beliefs that marriage is for life and there can be no divorce, so that he can marry Phuong. The ending of The Lotus Eaters is unsatisfactory: Helen comes back from the dead to Linh, and, it is implied, they live happily ever after. As if.
There is another novel of betrayal that does have more satisfactory ending, and that is For Whom the Bell Tolls. Robert Jordan, the American explosives expert, who has blown a bridge, his contribution to the Spanish Civil War for the Republic, has fallen in love with Maria, a girl partisan and wants to take her back to his home in the States. But at the end of the novel his horse is shot under him, falls on him and breaks his leg. He cannot carry on. He knows he is going to die, but he can lie there and when the fascists start to follow the partisans, he can fire on them. The novel ends there. We know he is going to die. That is a satisfactory, honest, ending. It is like the ending of a Greek myth. Men, and women, die. The gods do not die, but they are frivolous beings, playing with mortal men.
I’ve never known anyone like Helen or Darrow or Linh. Well, I wouldn’t, would I? I’ve led a sheltered life, an academic for the most part. The only time when my experiences approached theirs was in the army, a horrible experience that I got out of as soon as I could. But Soli’s accounts of the military activities ring true. The incompetence. The lies, the self-deception. The elevation of one’s duty to one’s buddies above everything else, above the truth. Every time I’ve heard someone say ‘Tell them what they want to hear’, I’ve shuddered. This novel is an account of how difficult it is to face up to the truth about ourselves, and, in my view, it thoroughly deserves the Orange prize.