Remembering Heaven’s Face

My fascination in the Vietnam War budded when I was in eighth grade; that summer,  I bought this memoir from a book shop in Saratoga Springs.  After four years — one thesis paper and specialized history class later — I plucked this book from my shelf and finally read it.

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Ever since freshman year I’ve been having trouble mustering enough stamina and motivation to read outside of school.  (I know, a terrible habit for a “writer”).  So the fact that I actually read this cover-to-cover is a compliment to Mr. Balaban, who now has my utmost respect.  The experience of reading this book also reminded me how crazy it is that I don’t read enough: to quote iCarly, “it’s like TV in your head!”  I also discovered the joy of reading secondhand books.  The owner before me underlined diligently in pencil names of organizations and descriptions of Vietnamese food.  It almost feels like you’re reading along with someone.  I feel a disproportionate amount of affection for the previous owner, despite the fact that he was crazy enough to let this book go.  I certainly won’t be.

Anyway, on to the actual review.  Remembering Heaven’s Face is a memoir that traces an American’s journeys in Vietnam: first, as a conscientious objector working in volunteer services, then as an aid to injured children of war, then as a collector of traditional folk poetry, and finally as a visitor to the children he had helped save.  Since he is not a typical soldier, the memoir is obviously unique: throughout, he demonstrates a deep understanding of Vietnamese life and culture.  Through rich and frank descriptions, he pulls you into that lush, flavorful, and anxious world.

I know Balaban conveys this world truthfully because he doesn’t hide his own faults: throughout the narrative, he devolves somewhat into a more explosively violent man, and he is frank about the misgivings of his work.

The memoir addresses serious and important themes about the war, but I can’t help that my favorite parts were about his ventures into Vietnamese life.  Like when he arrives in a rural village to buy overpriced cinnamon.  Or when he plunges into the seedy nightlife of Saigon.  Or when he walks in the streets of northern Vietnam after the war, unafraid.  Again, these moments just show a more human, personal side than many Americans had experienced at the time.  And it’s just so illuminating and fascinating.  Thus his obvious tenderness and respect for Vietnamese people make his accounts of the senseless casualties and destruction even more meaningful and emotional.

Some favorite quotations:

“TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:

I, John Balaban, have no regrets for what I have done.  I wish the world well.  Stop the goddamn war.”

“[One of the American doctors in Vietnam] told me that ‘niggers’, as he called them, are not really like human beings, that we should not treat them like such…I was thinking, Mr. Balaban, as this doctor shared his ideas with me…that it is not a big jump from a Negro to a Vietnamese, is it?” (149).

(After getting shot by VC) “It seemed so stupid, my lying there in the road” (115)

“Yet for most of the sixty-two million who stayed, the war is being forgotten, forgotten in the rhythm of the rice harvest, forgotten in the raising of children, forgotten in the welter of hopes that peace and a bit of prosperity are creating, in hopes now fed by events of the wider world that Vietnam wants to enter.  In that kind of forgetting, there is a sanity, not an amnesia.” (333)

In sum, this memoir is unique and sensitively-written by an extraordinary person.  Mr. Balaban has joined a list of people that I want to meet.

-M.L.

 

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