Even in these days of Siri, there’s something odd about being read to by a computer. The voice of the Kindle—on the older versions that still have text-to-speech—doesn’t quite master human language. Inconsistent pacing and misplaced accents cause unnatural, pauses, and odd convergences especiallybetweensentencesthere’s also a weird fuzz at the edges of words that makes Kindle text-to-speech seem a kind of amateur electronic ventriloquism (you can see the lips moving, so to speak).
But text-to-speech is still damn useful for some circumstances, say when you’re crammed into one of four bunks inside a tiny steel-walled compartment on the night train from Hanoi to Hue. I’d read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried a few times before spending that month in Vietnam. The book is a Vietnam War classic and follows a soldier and his company through and after the war. Back in my graduate assistant teaching days, it’d been the one book that almost all students admitted liking. In part, I liked teaching it because so much of the book is about writing, an especially useful shoehorn for class discussion. One of my favorite stories in the collection is “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” in which a young Army medic imports his even younger Ohio sweetheart to Vietnam. One day, out on a cleared hillside in the jungle, at an Army medical outpost specializing in amputations and home to a small contingent of Green Berets whom all the medics fear, the seventeen-year-old Mary Anne Bell steps off a resupply chopper out of Chu Lai, in pink sweater and culottes, arrived in the middle of the war.
“Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” is recounted by O’Brien’s narrator, but the story of Mary Anne and her boyfriend is told by Rat Kiley, a medic who claimed to have seen the events firsthand. From the outset, O’Brien’s narrator warns readers about Rat’s tendency to embellish his stories:
It wasn’t a question of deceit . . . [Rat] wanted to heat up the truth, to make it burn so hot that you would feel exactly what he felt. For Rat Kiley, I think, facts were formed by sensation, not the other way around, and when you listened to one of his stories, you’d find yourself performing rapid calculations in your head, subtracting superlatives, figuring the square root of an absolute and then multiplying by maybe.
O’Brien’s point is that Rat is like most storytellers—straining to bridge the gap between teller and listener, between writer and reader, to communicate what exactly happened and what it felt like to be there. At its root, all writing is an act of translation. Something has happened, some action, some event, some human emotional development, and the writer must put it all into words that will transfer to the reader a sense of the what and why of the event and, perhaps, of how it glances up against some larger truth.
During my month in Vietnam, I felt a nearly constant uncertainty. Crossing Ho Chi Minh City streets through the crush of motorbike traffic jams, biking in monsoon rain out of rice paddy countryside into an urban Mekong port town circled around a French-built cathedral, lost in Hanoi’s pre-dawn shadows looking over my shoulder in those tight colonial streets, eating lunch in an enormous, half-built, and still mostly deserted Chinese beach resort in Da Nang, and standing with a veteran South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) interpreter become tour guide in a North Vietnamese military cemetery in the hills among rubber plantations just south of the old demilitarized zone, all the time feeling a low-grade, under-the-skin anxiousness: What will history require from me?
It’s been 40 years since America ended military involvement in Vietnam, 38 years since the fall of Saigon. I wasn’t alive for any of that troubled American period. I need a guide: that ARVN interpreter with stories about working with Colin Powell and about his time, after the Americans left, in a Communist prison and all that was back behind his eyes as he faced American tourists; a 20-something native of Ho Chi Minh City who learned English from the American husband of a cousin and who led our bike tour through the Mekong and would acknowledge little knowledge of the war; my parents’ neighbor for the past 20 years who served as an officer in the South; and writers like Tim O’Brien and characters like Rat Kiley and Mitchell Sanders, whose running criticism of Kiley’s storytelling throughout “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” provides a comic counterweight to the embellishing, myth-making tendencies in Kiley’s narrative approach.
How was your trip? It’s a question that almost always requires either vast understatement or an outright lie. How were my four weeks in Vietnam? I don’t remember the day of the week when I walked through the Hanoi station and stepped from the platform onto the night train to Hue. I didn’t know that in the coming days I’d be mostly marooned in my hotel as the streets of the ancient imperial capital flooded thigh-high with unseasonably late monsoon. I couldn’t imagine nights at The DMZ Bar with Australians caterwauling karaoke. I didn’t know what future I had with the woman I was traveling with or that we were about to spend a day in a van touring war sites with a man who’d been an ARVN interpreter working with American soldiers. I knew only that on the bottom two bunks of our four-bunk train compartment, a family of six, including two children, sat hunched over steaming plastic containers of one more meal I didn’t recognize, speaking a language with rhythms still unfamiliar sounding. I knew that I needed to take off my shoes and get my backpack and myself crammed into the upper bunk. I knew that I probably wouldn’t be sleeping.
Those night trains are why I still hear Rat Kiley speaking in the digital voice of the Kindle, the words strung together in a pace something like a Slinky’s worming bounce. “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” is a folk tale told among soldiers, romantic and nostalgic, funny and terrible. By the time Rat gets to the end, Mary Anne has gone off into the jungle by herself, still in her pink sweater and culottes but also with a necklace of human tongues. Rat tells the end with his back turned away from his listeners. The moment’s strangeness, the impossible everyday high school sweetheart disappeared into the war’s darkest terrain, the young medic expert at amputations trying to make his story believable, his half-mocking and half-riveted audience, and the added distance imposed by O’Brien’s story-within-a-story frame and the intervening 40 years—maybe the only right way to listen to “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” on the night train out of Hanoi is in a voice generated by electric wiring and microprocessors grappling a few words at a time to translate this human moment into speech.
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