St Louis Post-Dispatch, August 28, 2011:
"In the Fabled East" features Pierre Lazarie, a civil servant in French-controlled Vietnam in the 1930s. He's academically trained in the people of Indochina, so his insights are helpful in penetrating this mysterious part of the French colony.
One day, Emanuel Tremier arrives in Lazarie's Saigon office, asking for help in finding his mother, who left France with tuberculosis nearly 30 years earlier in search of a magical place in Laos where she could be cured.
Time is an illusion for the story's characters as they fight their way up the Mekong River to Laos in search of Adelie Tremier. At one point on this perilous journey, a tiger devours a French civil servant - something of a bore who would give France a bad name wherever he went.
Tremier hears that his mother has been living with a primitive, superstitious tribe, drinking from a mountain spring. By the time Tremier finds her, it's 1954, the French have been defeated by the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu in northwestern Vietnam, and he's a sergeant who calls himself Merde, the French word for excrement.
As I read this novel, told in chapters in the voices of various characters, I was reminded of other stories about Indochina and its wars involving Westerners - Tatjana Soli's "The Lotus Eaters," Tim O'Brien's "Going After Cacciato," Karl Marlantes "Matterhorn," Marti Leimbach's "The Man From Saigon," Graham Greene's "The Quiet American" and, yes, even Francis Ford Coppola's epic film "Apocalypse Now."
Each in its own way confronts the conflict and mystery that arise when Westerners plunge into the dense, foreign world of Southeast Asia, a world that is confounding to them and leaves them changed.
Author Adam Lewis Schroeder, a Canadian from British Columbia, has created an imaginative and symbolic novel that stimulates all of the senses of those of us who may never make such a journey.
Toronto Star, July 24, 2010:
No other writer gets the heat, the chaos, the shimmering otherness of the East quite like Penticton’s Adam Lewis Schroeder. His second novel, In the Fabled East, is a witty romp through colonial Indochina that focuses on two French nationals separated by time and gender. Pierre Lazarie, freshly minted Sorbonne Oriental Studies graduate, arrives in Saigon in 1936. Adélie Tremier, a consumptive beauty, precedes Pierre’s arrival by 27 years, whereupon she vanishes.
“Too shrill, too hot, too utterly baffling” is Pierre’s indelible first impression of Saigon. As he enthusiastically imagines academic articles on such subjects as “The Over-saturation of Rickshaws in Saigon and Environs,” a telegram arrives: His fiancée has dumped him. A naïf, no doubt, but a survivor too: Pierre won 6,000 francs gambling on board ship, a feat that mightily impresses Henri Le Dallic, his 44- year-old colleague.
Detailed to trace the missing Frenchwoman, Pierre and the dissolute Henri, the Messrs. Yin and Yang of road trips, embark on a grand adventure. Their hunt for the long-lost Adélie — her grown son having made the request in person — leads them into strange territory indeed.
Whereas Pierre falls immediately in love with the idea of their mystery woman, Henri sardonically soldiers on, driven by the search for whatever constitutes the local alcoholic beverage. Along the Mekong River, Pierre angrily confronts youthful plantation owners with their “silver cigarette cases, gold fillings, and shoes so glossy I might have shaved in them.” As he informs them that far from having no record of land ownership, Vietnam’s “Imperial Court at Hué kept exact records since the rise of the quan dien system in 14 . . . ” he is interrupted by Henri’s shout: “Chase the tourists from the buffet!”
Around donnish Pierre and old Indochina hand Henri, Schroeder weaves the tale of Adélie, a heroine among misfits and scoundrels. Her richly drawn life is marked by grotesque events, starting with the murder of her 3-year-old brother by a veteran of the Franco-Prussian War. In Paris, this terminally ill mother hears about a Shangri-La, a healing spring in Laos. Spitting blood, she embarks to find it: Only her survival will save her son from her in-laws’ military addiction.
Absurd? Mais oui. But Adélie steals the show with her determination and unblinking comprehension of what’s happening to her. In 1909, abandoned in the jungles of Laos, she observes: “The puddle of blood and mucus, only a hand’s-breath from her face, coursed with the wings of insects wading and leaping like children at the seaside.” She muses philosophically on sex and death: “Perhaps approaching ecstasy and approaching death were not so different.” The woman beguiles even as she dissolves.
Schroeder, like his creation Pierre, is one very shrewd card player. When cynicism, climate and lost souls threaten his narrative, he calmly deals a fresh hand. We are as astonished by Henri’s sudden bravery in saving a child from a lethal tiger attack. We are moved by Pierre’s wrenching encounter with parents who have sold their daughter in a futile attempt to pay French taxes. As this road-trip draws to a close, the exhausted Pierre is told the big news: Charlie Chaplin is visiting Angkor — shades of Angelina Jolie, a half century later.
Changes in rhythm and place are constants in his intriguing tale, but Schroeder’s drama is particularly gripping when the fabulous collides with the real in the novel’s final hundred-odd pages: the marching boots of a century’s endless wars intrude on the timeless village where Adélie has found succour. (Spoiler alert: these scenes are better than Lost.)
The year is now 1954. French citizens still in Indochina, Pierre among them, notice their wounded soldiers being spirited away to Massachusetts for treatment. The Americans are arriving. The French have been defeated at Dien Bien Phu. Adélie’s adored son, now a grizzled warrior, has survived this latest battle among the countless he has fought. Schroeder’s last scenes play out in a city on the brink, where daft colonial administrators preoccupy themselves with what to wear this week’s costume ball.
In a tremendously satisfying dénouement, our principal players are united partly by war, partly by the dissolution of empire, but mainly by a mother-and-child reunion — the dimensions of which can only be imagined within the pages of this marvelous and compelling tale.
(First three paragraphs describe Kingdom of Monkeys and Empress of Asia.) …After collecting more material in Laos and Vietnam in August of 2007, Schroeder has embraced and embroidered a mystery involving a Fountain of Eternal Youth in the forests of Laos, giving rise to In the Fabled East.
As a story, the search for eternal life and Shangri-La is a bit hackneyed, but Schroeder's dexterity, using multiple narrators, turns the tale into a risky literary enterprise well worth the journey.
We first travel with Pierre Lazarie, a romantic-minded Sorbonne graduate who, upon receiving his Baccalaureate in Oriental Studies, sails to Saigon to take up a clerical position as a bureaucrat. He is schooled by Henri LeDallic, an acerbic, cynical senior bureaucrat.
Adélie, a hauntingly beautiful Parisienne, begins to tell her story much earlier, in 1886, having endured deaths, sudden penury and early widowhood. By 1909, beset by tuberculosis, she leaves her nine-year-old son and her mother-in-law to search for a healing fountain in 'the fabled east,' apparently never to return.
A third narrator is Captain Emmanuel (Manu) Tremier, Adélie's son, in his 30s. He does not take centre stage until late in the novel, but he does make a brief appearance soon after Lazarie's arrival in Saigon. Prior to joining his new battalion, Captain Tremier asks Pierre's new employer, the Immigration Department of the Colony of Cochin-China, for assistance in finding his mother.
The captain pulls out an old photo of her. One look, and Lazarie is in love. He will find her.
It matter not that Adélie would be 56 if alive--which is highly doubtful, given that she suffered from the advanced stages of tuberculosis. In Heart of Darkness style, the reluctant LeDallic and the excited Lazarie begin their trek down the Mekong and beyond, into the remote jungles of Laos.
Within a tiger's leap of their goal, misfortune bares its teeth and LeDallic can no longer continue. Lazarie is forced to retreat, and his dream of finding the woman in search of the mythical Fountain of Eternal Youth must be reluctantly abandoned. Back in Saigon he will become more and more like the old colleague he's replaced, as he loses his idealism and youth.
It's 1954. And we've begun to figure out where this is all going. The French Indochina War is limping to its bloody conclusion. France has surrendered at Dien Bien Phu and Captain Tremier is in retreat with his ragtag handful of soldiers, bushwhacking through the jungle towards Laos.
Eventually they wind up in the village of the Sadet, modelled on an actual Khamu village, Mak Tong. More cannot be revealed. With Schroeder, the plot can take surprising turns, and revealing it would simply not do.
With this young writer, in addition to characters you want to hang out with (or eavesdrop on), you'll get an engrossing, frequently surprising plot to keep you second-guessing. You'll also get a new appreciation for how good the English language really is in the hands of a literary acrobat.
Perhaps most importantly, you'll get so immersed in the world he creates that it might take some time to emerge from it.
Vancouver Sun, May 8, 2010:
I can't figure it out. Even with my 20 years as a bookseller and more than a decade as a reviewer, there are times I just don't understand why certain writers, and certain books, hit it big while other books and their authors languish.
Sometimes, it's pretty apparent. A difficult or arcane style won't usually appeal to a wide readership, for example, while a crackling plot will draw readers even if there are problems with the mechanics of the writing.
It gets confusing for me, though, when I'm confronted with a book that is both exquisitely written and a page-turning story. Shouldn't it become a hit?
Take University of B.C. creative-writing grad Adam Lewis Schroeder. After reading his first novel, Empress of Asia (which was shortlisted for two prizes), I assumed he was fast on his way to becoming a household name. Empress of Asia had everything -great writing, a great story -and Schroeder, who now lives in Penticton, was the sort of author who made good copy: photogenic, with a back story of travels in Asia.
By rights, the novel should have been a national bestseller. For some reason, though, that didn't happen.
Thankfully, talented writers like Schroeder have more than one novel in them, and his new book, In the Fabled East, is even better than Empress of Asia.
In the Fabled East begins as Pierre Lazarie leaves his home in Paris to take up a bureaucratic post in Saigon. It's 1936, and France is clinging to its colonial presence in Indochina. Lazarie, an aficionado of the East with a degree to match, has spent his life imagining the world he is about to enter -- a world of tigers and tribesmen, temples and history.
The squalid, unromantic urban reality he finds comes with much disappointment.
Within hours of his arrival, however, Lazarie and his superior, the jaded, seasoned, hard-drinking Henri LeDallic, are given a strange assignment: to discover the destiny of a French woman, the mother of a captain in the French army. Adelie Tremier arrived in Saigon in 1909, suffering from tuberculosis and searching desperately for a fabled healing spring to save her life.
She immediately disappeared into the wilds of Indochina without a trace.
As Lazarie and LeDallic take on their seemingly impossible assignment, Schroeder begins to weave scenes from Tremier's life into the main narrative. From her privileged existence in Paris to her days of disease to, most stirringly, what she finds in the jungle after she disappears in Saigon, these scenes form a counterpoint to Lazarie's increasing desperation and frustration.
Following these two storylines, Schroeder creates a novel that, while rich in echoes of works like Heart of Darkness and Lost Horizon, is breathtakingly original and shockingly powerful.
In the Fabled East blends compelling realism with a naturalistic approach to myth and magic realism.
Vietnam and Laos come vividly to life, from the urban flurry of Saigon to a harrowing journey upriver that ends in tragedy, from the life of a timeless primitive tribe to the confusion of the fall of French power in the mid-1950s.
In the Fabled East demands, and rewards, close attention. Not only does Schroeder make every word count, but many of them do double duty. The actions of characters, for example, are frequently depicted within dialogue, resulting in the feeling of a second, shadowy narrative taking place alongside the recounted movement of a scene.
Similarly, a rich mythic system of portents and symbols is crucial to a full understanding of the novel, but it's understated, treated as part of the texture of the novel rather than drawing attention to itself.
Simply put, In the Fabled East is a winner, drawing on disparate elements to create a singular, stunning whole. It is beautiful, and haunting; brutal, and realistic; it is strange and alien but fundamentally familiar and human; it is thoughtful, and suspenseful, meditative and action-filled.
It is the sort of book that not only becomes a bestseller but is passed from hand to hand, shared among readers.
I hope that this time Schroeder's novel will get the attention, and the acclaim, it so richly deserves.
--Robert J. Wiersema
Globe & Mail, March 30, 2010:
How welcome is an enjoyable novel that seems so unapologetically on the wrong side of today’s literary and cultural politics!
Though not without its limitations, Adam Lewis Schroeder’s third book, In the Fabled East, comes across in just such promising terms: It’s a straightforward historical novel, from a white Western male, about an array of white Westerners seeking various kinds of respite and restoration from an array of Western maladies, by travelling to, and through, an exotic, beguiling and dangerous Far East.
There are no apologies for this premise, which seems so self-evidently outmoded by decades of postcolonial and academic developments, which suggest that someone like Schroeder ought not pursue a story like this one, based on a premise that inspires privileged, white, Western characters to quest after nothing less than “the East” itself, whether in the “clangour of automobile horns” that sound across teeming Saigon or before a “thousand-year-old temple [that] juts out from a hillside to vanish the next moment behind a jungle canopy.”
To be sure, Schroeder, whose prior novels also feature the Far East, is too intelligent a writer to imply that such idealized reductions and stereotypical essentialisms do, in fact, correspond to “the East,” as is implied by the telling adjective he uses in the novel’s title. Indeed, this “fabled” place, and the states of mind and being that it inspires, represents “an ever-fleeting thing” that serves to compel so much of the novel’s movement and feeling.
Dating from the late 19th century through the 1950s, the novel is set in urban and rural settings throughout then-French Indochina (today Vietnam), which are occasionally interleaved with scenes set in France. Within these contexts, the novel explores the experiences of well-to-do French men and women whose relationships and involvements with larger historical and political events bring them from France to Indochina in search of wealth, health, sex and scholarship – and, at the novel’s most moving moments, each other.