Mysterious Fragrance Of The Yellow Mountains by Yasuko ThanhMysterious Fragrance Of The Yellow Mountains by Yasuko Thanh

Mysterious Fragrance Of The Yellow Mountains

byYasuko Thanh

Paperback | April 5, 2016

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about

Winner of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize

Winner of the 2017 City of Victoria Butler Book Prize

Finalist for the 2017 Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award

How can you stand up to tyranny when your own identity is in turmoil?


Vietnam is a haunted country, and Dr. Nguyen Georges-Minh is a haunted man. In 1908, the French rule Saigon, but uneasily; dissent whispers through the corridors of the city. Each day, more Vietnamese rebels are paraded through the streets towards the gleaming blade of the guillotine, now a permanent fixture in the main square and a gruesome warning to those who would attempt to challenge colonial rule.
     It is a warning that Georges-Minh will not heed. A Vietnamese national and Paris-educated physician, he is obsessed by guilt over his material wealth and nurses a secret loathing for the French connections that have made him rich, even as they have torn his beloved country apart.
     With a close-knit group of his friends calling themselves the Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains, Georges-Minh plots revenge on the French for the savagery they have shown to the Vietnamese. And it falls to Georges-Minh to create a poison to mix into the Christmas dinner of a garrison of French soldiers. It is an act that will send an unmistakable message to the French: Get out of Vietnam.
     But the assassination attempt goes horribly wrong. Forced to flee into the deep jungles of the outer provinces, Georges-Minh must care for his infant son, manage the growing madness of his wife, and elude capture by the hill tribes and the small--but lethal--pockets of French sympathizers.
     Journey Prize winner Yasuko Thanh transports us into a vivid, historical Vietnam, one that is filled with chaotic streets, teeming marketplaces, squalid opium dens, and angry ghosts that exist side by side with the living.

YASUKO THANH's story collection Floating Like the Dead was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Award and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. One of its stories won an Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Short Story. The title story won the Journey Prize for the best story published in Canada in 2009. Quill & Quire named Floating Like the Dead a...
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Title:Mysterious Fragrance Of The Yellow MountainsFormat:PaperbackProduct dimensions:320 pages, 8.5 × 5.75 × 0.9 inShipping dimensions:8.5 × 5.75 × 0.9 inPublished:April 5, 2016Publisher:Penguin CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0670068780

ISBN - 13:9780670068784

Reviews

Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting Story I enjoyed the writing and the story; following the characters to their demise. The author does a very good job describing the conditions the characters lived under and incorporated Vietnamese tradition. Overall enjoyable novel.
Date published: 2017-03-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from good I liked the authors persective.
Date published: 2017-01-31
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Average took awhile to finish this. not my cup of tea.
Date published: 2016-11-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Magical! An interesting portrait of historical Vietnam. An important commentary on the results of colonialism, which is timely givne our own experience with Indigenous peoples in Canada.
Date published: 2016-11-07

Read from the Book

Killing a man is easy. Life is fragile, for one. And the world is poisonous, for two. How poisonous? Cobras, mush­rooms, stonefish, apple seeds. Consider the datura plant. Datura stramonium. White flowers the shape of a trumpet and the size of a human heart. The seeds, crushed with a mortar and pestle, are easily processed. Thieves and prostitutes favour its killing properties. Georges-Minh has seen the results in his practice and he has such a flower blooming in his courtyard.      Five men plotted in a circle. Five men, none of them yet thirty. Five men, cross-legged on Georges-Minh’s bed, which took up half the room, no mattress in the Chinese style, carved from the rarest red wood, Georges-Minh’s command centre, where he ate, slept, played cards, and officiated the meetings he held at his house twice a month.      “Mysterious Scent of the Mountains,” said Khieu, who owned an inn with his wife and spent his spare time painting poetry onto the inside of rice-paper sun hats. Had it not been for winter, / the falling snow / might have been cherry blossoms. One day he would close the inn and just sell the hats whose words could be read only when they were raised to the rays of the sun.       His suit was the same type of linen as Georges-Minh’s except that Georges-Minh’s was ironed. His knees sloped, and the collar of his white shirt, where it met the dark line of his stubble, was wrinkled like the rings of a pineapple tree. Smaller than Georges-Minh’s, his thin mouth appeared somewhat lecherous. His powdered hair smelled like jasmine.       He sat to Georges-Minh’s right, so close their knees touched. Georges-Minh stared at his best friend’s thick betel-nut-coloured hands rolling a cigarette as he shielded the tobacco from the wind of a small oscillating fan, wondering why he hadn’t spoken of his wife in so many months.       “No, no, no. I still like Fighting Dragon,” said Trinh Van Phuc, the musician of the group, in an accent that sounded like he was chopping vegetables. Rumour was he’d been married, though he never talked about his wife.       “Or, like I said before,” Khieu said, staring straight at Georges-Minh, “we can make a poison.” He looked at the back of his hand, examined his nails.       Georges-Minh’s cheeks grew hot. “How’s your brood, Khieu?” Georges-Minh asked nervously, trying to change the subject.       “Don’t know.” Khieu lowered his gaze, picked up his hand of cards.       “Mysterious Scent of the … whatever is too … too …” Phuc waved his teacup, trying to catch the right word.       “Don’t know?”       “Haven’t seen Mai in months,” Khieu said sheepishly.       “Perfume sounds like something from a song,” Phuc said. “We’re a revolutionary group—not minstrels.”       “Perfumes are transcendent,” the third man, a horticultural­ist, said. The fellows called him Bao, though at his shop he responded with equal ease to Bao or Victor or Mr. Le.      “Not even the kids?” Georges-Minh said. Mostly they kept their private affairs private. Still, the revelation shocked him because Khieu had been married to his wife, Mai, for seven years; they had three children together.       “These things happen,” Phuc said and shrugged.       How did they happen? Like a storm that washed your memory of a family the way a rain washed a road in a sudden burst? Or did they happen the way a thief with a bludgeon attacked a family, leaving death in his wake? He imagined Mai running the inn alone, looked down at his cards as if it was his hand that troubled him.       “How many soldiers can there be?”       “Thirty or forty?”       “I heard fifty,” said Khieu.       “You’re both wrong. The exact number is eighty.”       “Do you know nothing? They number over two hundred!”       “We will drive out the French bandits.”       “We will restore Vietnam.”       “We will create a democratic republic.”       “No, a monarchy.”       Their hearts were in the right places, these members of the MFYM, Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains, who didn’t yet have a name, perhaps because most of their meetings were spent drinking and playing cards. They discussed lofty ideals. Drank. Outlined what a free and democratic Vietnam would look like. Drank. Compared international political sys­tems. Drank. Cited historical precedents. Cursed the French.       Each man held some playing cards and a glass of mulberry wine. They were teacups, not wine glasses, and none of them matched, but Georges-Minh wanted people to believe he didn’t care about such trifling details. He could have afforded match­ing wine glasses, but only shallow men cared about such worldly things.      “If we can’t agree, let’s move on,” suggested Bao, who raised moonflowers and other exotic flora for an exclusive clientele.       Le Bao Victor’s father was the junior minister of the Annamese cabinet of Cochin China. As a child Bao had travelled with his father to the Dutch East Indies and France, when his father had still thought he might follow in his footsteps and enter the cabinet himself. But the junior minister’s power was in name alone. Had the family any jurisdiction at all, perhaps only the alleys knew it. The jackfruit trees. The sewers and opium dens. Delinquents with slingshots. Women at the market. Shoeshine boys.       The Les flaunted their material wealth as if in spite. Tennis lessons for the children. Rowing. Elocution. Music appreciation.       Bao’s wife, Mimi, married him not because she wanted a better life. Not only because. But if she’d known a few rooms next to a flower shop awaited her? He turned his back on politics two years after their marriage. Began wearing a bicycle chain for a belt. Fell in love with orchids, chrysanthemums, bellflowers, hibiscus. After reuniting with his elementary-school mates Georges-Minh and Khieu in a bar.       “Let’s talk about what we’re actually here for,” Bao said, “as our esteemed colleague Khieu suggested when he brought up a rather interesting idea. Why don’t we talk about that?”       Khieu and Georges-Minh had been best friends since grade school, when they’d run loose around Saigon’s back alleys, climb­ing trees and scaring cats.       Khieu, whose family lived in one of the many shacks built over the river, hated the sellout, the collaboration of his family with the enemy that included his Christian name, Henri, but he stopped short of hating the urchins who called to him across the alleyways of Cholon—“Hon-riii, Hon-riii, give us a tien, give us your school tie”—who worshipped anything French, giving themselves French nicknames for fun.      “Chosen well, a good name helps define a group’s beliefs, bestows desired traits,” Georges-Minh said, because Khieu was the kind of person who as a child had given away his pencils and schoolbooks to those same urchins, and now sat with a cracked teacup of wine in his hand goading him. Even as a child Khieu had cared about things. Georges-Minh couldn’t have cared less. Georges-Minh was too busy lusting after a new mechanical boat or model train. Khieu, who’d had nothing, had ideals, and hadn’t even wanted his French name. Georges-Minh shrugged. “Look at all the fuss and divination that goes into choosing a child’s name.” He would go to as much trouble when he named his son. When he had a son. When he found a woman. When he got married. Which he would. Any day now.       “Not a monarchy, a republic,” Khieu said. “Haven’t you read Rousseau?”       “They should die like dogs.”       “They should die like a snake under a rickshaw driver’s wheels.”       “They should die a bad death. Not a ‘death in the house and home’ but a ‘death in the street.’ ”       “They should die like an iguana in the mouth of a hungry dog, swelling at head and tail until they burst under the pressure of his powerful jaws.”       “Poison the lieutenant colonel of the garrison with gan cong mak coc, liver of a peacock, bile of a frog.”       “No. People should use a beautiful woman to kill a king.”       “Yes, love them to death.”       “You’re suggesting a strategy?”       “Poison doesn’t always kill. Did you hear about the guy who was dying? Of cancer. So he took liver and bile and the poison started to cure his cancer.”       “Actually?”       “Actually.”      “They can die like a lover in the arms of a woman,” Khieu said. “I don’t care. So long as they die.”       Making a poison strong enough to kill a man is easy. Remove the seeds from the stamen. Crush with a mortar and pestle until the dry seeds stop crackling. The powder is now so fine as to be invisible and weightless. Season chicken, shrimp, or buffalo with the dust. Steeped in fish sauce, the poison is tasteless.       Because he was a little drunk, Georges-Minh fell against Khieu. He righted himself and dabbed with his thumb at the spilled wine on the wooden bed slat. “I don’t mind talking about the group name some more. A thing becomes its name and vice versa. Can you imagine a militant group with the word ‘bananas’ in its moniker?”       “Bananas is definitely out.”       “I second.”       “Third.”       “Obviously.”       “This is absurd.”       “What was that name you said? Mysterious perfume …”       “Mysterious smell.”       “Fragrance.”       “No, it was mysterious scent, but I like perfume better.”       “Me too.”       “Perfume then,” said Chang. Chang was an ethnic Chinese, born in Cholon, a court translator and lover of books. “But mysterious is the important part, because it’s how we must remain. Elusive. Who said elusive? As in impossible to catch. By soldiers, police, any and all enemies.”       “Well, perfumes are important, too,” said Bao, who would have said such a thing.  “And sweet, right, because that’s what we want to be. But the transcendence. That’s the part that’s important. When something becomes a perfume it transcends its lot as a fragrance to become something else. See?”     “Maybe you’re not that much of a blockhead,” said Chang, the translator with the thick and beautiful lips. “Sweet as a flower that rises in the spring. In the spring there’s hope. Especially in the north.”       “Where at present,” said Georges-Minh, striking a serious face, “the news is one in three women are now prostitutes because of the regime. Did you know they’re starving in Tonkin? Picking individual grains of fallen rice from between stones with their fingers. Eating farm animals dead of disease.”       The men sympathized with silent nods.       “Invisible as a fragrance,” Chang continued. “Invisible as hope, invisible as a guerrilla fighter. Mountains, of course, are a symbol of strength. Where were we then, mountains?”       “Don’t forget, prayers are invisible, too,” Phuc said, chain-smoking. The rich ate, the poor smoked.       “True,” said Georges-Minh.       “Like the fart I just let out?” Phuc said.       “God, Phuc. Will you ever grow up?” Bao said.       Khieu took a sip of his wine, then drained the cup, avoiding the chip on the rim. After lighting a cigarette he said, “If we’re not going to move on to the poison until after we choose a name then I say let’s add ‘yellow’—Mysterious Perfume of the Yellow Mountains. Makes us sound more poetic.”       Was Khieu playing it straight with the group? Yellow? Georges-Minh couldn’t tell much about the man these days. Khieu had always dreamed of travelling to distant places, Africa, Borneo, and Antarctica, and carried maps with him wherever he went. Then one day he’d thrown them in the river. He had recently started growing his hair long again, like some of the Hindu holy men in the marketplace. He had discarded his topknot and traditional turban in favour of clipped hair long ago, but now he no longer kept it sleek, no longer washed it. He wore his hair unkempt and ran around the marketplace pushing a broom or borrowing rickshaws that didn’t belong to him. This, in itself, wasn’t completely new. But he’d changed since the hauling of those French contraptions of horror into the square, the guillotines.       Georges-Minh hated the French—he could say those words. But could he write someone’s name in poison? Georges-Minh didn’t know if he could kill a man. Maybe one man. But could he poison a whole garrison? Poison. Khieu’s earlier words hung in the air along with his cigarette smoke, waiting for Georges-Minh’s response.       The truth was, ever since that day as a schoolboy, when Khieu with his one green eye that emphasized his craziness had stood nearly naked in the marketplace in Cholon, Georges-Minh had admired him because he was everything Georges-Minh was incapable of being by nature, lacking the inner rigour. Or thought he had admired him because at least he stood for something. A few years later, as a teenager, when Khieu stole a driver’s rickshaw one afternoon and pretended he was a coolie, returning the rick­shaw and all his earnings to the rightful owner that evening, Georges-Minh had wanted to be him. Khieu, who had a neck as solid as an ironwood tree, was strong. Even now, as an adult, when he returned to Cholon and swept the streets with a broom or collected garbage with his hands, barefoot as a peasant—for the love of work or to prove a political point, Georges-Minh wasn’t exactly sure—everyone knew him by name. Now Khieu was looking at him and Georges-Minh could feel whatever small admiration he’d built up for himself in Khieu’s eyes over the years slipping away by degrees like a small village down a water­logged hillside during the monsoon rains. Khieu, looking again with that provocation in his eyes Georges-Minh decided was his friend’s way of mocking him, for being weaker than him, teasing him for his reluctance to get involved. Provoking him into being more than the wimp he always was. Taking a stand.      Khieu still enjoyed mathematics, detective novels, astronomy, searching with his telescope for alien life in the skies, but another part of him had evolved into something Georges-Minh no longer recognized after hearing men screech nationalist slogans, watch­ing the blade fall, heads tumbling into baskets. The heads were collected and mounted onto spikes as warnings to others. Punishments were distributed to Vietnamese who tried to remove the heads too soon. Even as he sat there now, with Khieu waiting for his response—would he or would he not make a poison to kill the soldiers stationed at the French garrison of Saigon?—he knew he was disappointing his friend. And his country by extension.       He was the natural choice. The doctor of the group. Private doctor to the lieutenant colonel of the garrison.       Georges-Minh looked out the window. Subterfuge. An irra­tional ploy. Smile and no one will bother you. Look away and what you don’t want to see turns invisible. Gazing at the river that flowed out back. Now the shade of a ball bearing. Now the shade of dirty cotton. Now the shade of belly button lint. He could pretend the river was something fleeting. A minnow, a swordfish, a dragon. Then the dreaded thing happened. It must. It had to.       “Yes, of course. He could make the poison.”       “Naturally, he’s a doctor,” Bao said, scratching his eyes. His lids were swollen again. Last night, he’d gotten drunk and sat with the cuttings, singing to them. “March to victory, sway, sway.” Using the wine bottle as a door knocker, he’d tried to wake Mimi. She, angry as usual, had refused to join him in the room where he nurtured the rooted plants, encouraging them to grow.       Who knew this was something he’d be good at? If sore eyes was the price? He stumbled to each pot, ensured the proper mix of soil versus food. His own blend of which he was proud. Sang to them, while Mimi hollered he would wake the dead.       “What do you say?” Phuc said.       “Georges-Minh?”      “Aren’t you listening?” Phuc said.       “He’s drunk.”       “Could you or couldn’t you?”       “Daydreaming.”       “No, I was paying attention. Poison.”       “Well?”       “There are many ways to poison a man.”       Georges-Minh stared into Khieu’s one green eye. Mulberry wine made all the fish in the near dark leap out of the river and hover over the water. They spun and danced and gal­loped through the air, a synchronized ripple, the way the water puppets shimmer and perform boisterous art over Saigon River currents.

Editorial Reviews

Winner of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize Finalist for the 2017 Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel AwardOne of the NP99: National Post’s best books of 2016“Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains offers a very readable and equally savage look at colonial Vietnam. Yasuko Thanh’s writing whips up a miasma of jasmine oil and incense and opium smoke, while remaining gauzy as tulle. Which is not to say the story is frivolous. Think of a shiv as opposed to a longsword: one is showy and unwieldy, the other, subtle and devastating. Thanh spares us the weighty sentimentality and epic posturing of some historical novels, and gets right to the goods, through stirring narrative and imagery . . . Thanh’s ability to navigate such brutal territory with a steady hand makes this book a must-read.”—Globe and Mail   “Deft touches of magical realism lend this story of love, obligation, and sabotage the mysterious aura referenced in the title.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review   “Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains will carry you away with the startling clarity of its language—you will almost forget you are reading at all. Until, that is, you are drawn up short by the uncanny sense that this book is not really about the past at all . . . that it is instead directly addressing you, the reader.”—Johanna Skibsrud, Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author of The Sentimentalists   “Sweeping yet intimate, Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains is a novel in which not a single, haunting detail is trivial, and a devastating edginess straddles what is intoxicating, astonishing, and at once ancient and contemporary. Yasuko Thanh has rendered a richly imagined narrative of five men plotting, drinking, dreaming of poison against the fascinating backdrop of colonialism and revolution, where ghosts, superstition, love, and insanity seethe. This is a book to be savoured, thought about, and discussed — a book to be remembered.”—Alexandra Curry, author of The Courtesan   “The universal legacies of colonialism: guilt, revenge, violence, ghosts. Yasuko Thanh captures Viet Nam's historical intrigues in story-telling that is compelling, vivid, tragic, passionate.”—Kim Echlin, author of The Disappeared“The ordinary mingles with the monumental…. A novel that feels simultaneously historical and firmly contemporary.”  — MAISONNEUVE Magazine"Straining under the colonial rule of the French at the turn of the twentieth century, Vietnam is rife with corruption, oppression, opium dens, and revolutionary cells, and an active guillotine dominates a Saigon square. With compelling narrative drive, Yasuko Thanh imbues Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains with atmosphere and resonance, and creates mesmerizing characters who undergo complex change — politically, socially, personally, sexually — as they are gathered into a vortex of intrigue and risk. The author is as fearless and as wise in reshaping the mystique of the revolutionary as she is in delineating a dramatic time and place in this elegant and tantalizing novel."- 2016 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize Jury Lauren B. Davis, Trevor Ferguson, and Pasha Malla