[First published on Killings, September 12, 2012]
It’s hard not to be hooked by the opening lines of Emily Maguire’s Fishing for Tigers: ‘I had picked Hanoi because the airfare was cheap and I knew almost nothing about the place. The need to be swallowed up by strangeness was the closest thing to desire I’d felt in years.’ Six years have passed since Mischa realised this desire and moved from America to Hanoi, not purely for adventure’s sake but to escape an abusive husband.
We enter her life at this settled stage, in a setting typical of almost any city in the world: a rooftop bar. A group of mostly Australian expats are toasting the arrival of Cal, the teenaged son of Mischa’s close friend. Cocktails are served by English-speaking waiters and conversation ranges from sex and relationship anxieties to fears Hanoi is becoming yet another tourist haven like Bangkok and Phuket. As the night wears on, Mischa’s eyes keep wandering to this new person standing apart from the adults – this person who will soon become very close to her, but for now regards her group with an air of bemusement.
It’s no coincidence that shortly after his arrival, Cal is seen carrying around a copy of Alex Garland’s The Beach. Mischa’s friends could almost be those same lost backpackers from Garland’s Southeast Asia traveller’s bible, only they’ve long ditched the island and scored plum regional postings, affording them the luxury of housekeepers and nights spent boozing in bars. Whereas Garland was more concerned with the environmental impact of tourism on the developing world, Maguire is interested in the personal transformations of those who flee Western society in search of that elusive something not afforded to them by the developed world.
Even though Fishing for Tigers is a lot less didactic than The Beach or the other book it noticeably references, The Quiet American, Maguire doesn’t shy away from the politics of being an outsider. Maguire’s incisive essays and texts on sexual politics are widely lauded, and with this novel, she casts her gaze on twenty-first century Asia. Much like Mischa does, the reader becomes increasingly unsettled by the prevailing prejudices of some expats towards Asian women – from those men looking for docile caregivers to those trading in sex tourism.
Inverting this power dynamic is Mischa’s sexual relationship with Cal, a half-Vietnamese, half-Australian man nearly twenty years her junior. Before Fishing for Tigers becomes yet another tale of reckless abandonment in the heady East, reality sets in: the heat of their affair is tempered by strangers mistaking Cal for her son, or when he childishly takes offense at their conflicting attitudes towards modern-day Vietnam.
When it comes to the expatriate mindset, though, Cal is wise beyond his eighteen years. Cal is increasingly appalled at Mischa’s friends for viewing his ancestral country as merely a ‘blank slate’ on which to rewrite their lives. Mischa, though, is not so self-centred; she is fully aware of Vietnam’s history, and while she sometimes has to look away from a horrific war photograph or relic, she faces her guilt about feeling alive among all this death: ‘What was my small, sad story’, she reasons, ‘compared to thousand-year-old-stone?’
Fishing for Tigers is a clever antidote to the countless travel narratives set in the East in which privileged Westerners, hooked on their desire to either lose, find or heal themselves, fail to properly engage with the culture around them. By highlighting the beauty in its difference and acknowledging its tragic past, Maguire doesn’t romanticise Vietnam – she celebrates it.