Tatjana Soli: The Lotus Eaters (2010) Literature and War Readalong October 2011

Soli’s debut revolves around three characters whose lives are affected by the Vietnam War. Helen Adams comes to Vietnam in the hopes of documenting the combat that took her brother from her. She immediately attracts the attention of the male journalists in the region, and quickly falls into an affair with the grizzled but darkly charismatic war photographer Sam Darrow. As Helen starts to make her own way as a photographer in Vietnam, drawing as much attention for her gender as for her work, Darrow sends her his Vietnamese assistant, Linh, a reluctant soldier who deserted the SVA in the wake of his wife’s death. While Linh wants nothing more than to escape the war, Darrow and Helen are consumed by it, unable to leave until the inevitable tragedy strikes. The strength here is in Soli’s vivid, beautiful depiction of war-torn Vietnam, from the dangers of the field, where death can be a single step away, to the emptiness of the Saigon streets in the final days of the American evacuation.

For one reason or the other I had a hard time getting into this novel. I struggled for almost 100 pages but all of a sudden I was hooked, fascinated and almost entranced. And I wanted to talk about it. I don’t always feel the urge to talk about what I’m reading but with this book, I felt it because the topics Soli chose are still as conflicting and important today, during any war, as they were at the time, in Vietnam.

The book starts in 1975 with the fall of Saigon and then switches back to 1963 and the moment when the young photojournalist Helen Adams arrives in Vietnam to cover the war. Helen is keen, eager and ambitious and a sensation as she is one of the first women photographers to want to cover a war.

Helen’s character is complex and interesting and through her we see the fascination and problems of this dangerous profession. Helen’s character is based on the stories of real photographers, one of them Dickey Chapelle, one of the first female war photographers who was killed in action.

There aren’t many professions that I find as problematic as war photographer and the novel does a fantastic job at letting us look into their world.

Helen knows from the start that if she wants to become a famous photographer, shoot interesting pictures, she must follow the men into combat. This is not only dangerous, it’s also voyeuristic because the photographers take pictures of everything. Dying soldiers, executed Vietnamese, piles of bodies, screaming children, in short, people during their final moments. They often wonder whether they are more than just vultures, whether it is justified to do what they are doing. On the other hand they get addicted to the high they experience in the heat of the action and the exhilaration that follows an incredible shot that will go on the cover of a magazine and will be seen by the whole word.

Helen and the others constantly oscillate between two states of mind, the selfish drive and the urge to help and reveal to the world what is going on. It seems as if this was a very addictive job and when the novel nears the end and at the same time the end of the war, there is a feeling in the air as if a party was over.

The danger cannot be underestimated. Not only the soldiers, whom Helen gets to like, are killed, many fellow photographers lose their lives as well. One could say the better the picture, the more dangerous the situation was for everyone involved and especially for the subjects.

An older woman from the group, a mother or aunt, screamed and ran forward toward the alcove, and one of the soldiers shot her. Captured on film. The curse of photojournalism was that a good picture necessitated the subject getting hurt or killed.

I was wondering why I always find it much more problematic when someone shoots a photo of a wounded or dying person but have far less of a problem when a reporter only tells or writes about it. Maybe because the dying people lose their privacy. In order to get a good shot, the photographer needs to focus on the pain, to invade the space of the other.

A the heart of The Lotus Eaters is a complex love story or rather the story of a love triangle. I was far less interested in that aspect of the book and that’s maybe why I didn’t like the beginning so much as it focuses a lot on that story line.

Soli manages to give a good feeling for the war. She captures how the war and its perception changed over time, shows how different its meaning was for those abroad, the Americans and Europeans who lived in Vietnam,  as well as for the Vietnamese people. In the beginning the presence of the French can still be felt.

The Americans called it “the Vietnam war”, and the Vietnamese called it “the American war” to differentiate it from “the French war” that had come before it, although they referred to both wars as “the Wars of Independence”. Most Americans found it highly insulting to be mentioned in the same breath with the colonial French.

The descriptions of the city, the country and the jungle are vivid and evocative. For that alone the book is worth reading. I equally liked how she managed to show what it meant for women to cover war. There are no women soldiers and when the female photographers follow a group into combat, they are the only women present which was problematic as well. There were sexual tensions and the fact that the men felt responsible for the women, furthermore they didn’t want to be seen injured or wounded by women.

When Helen goes back to the US for a while, in the late 60s, she tries to make people understand why she does this job. Helen explores her reasons very often and at one point she has to admit it is also because she excels at what she is doing.

“I just went as a lark. It turned into something else. What do you do if you have a hazardous talent, like riding over waterfalls in a barrel? A talent dangerous to your health?” After the question came out of her mouth, she felt embarrassed.

I’m glad I read The Lotus Eaters.  It has many beautiful passages and is very thought-provoking. It gives an in-depth view of one of the most dangerous professions without giving any easy answers. It’s up to the reader whether he thinks they are purely adrenaline addicted vultures or whether they are doing a heroic and admirable job.

I often wonder whether we need those pictures. Do we need to see the horror in detail, up close? Does it help stop wars? In one instance Helen says that every good war picture is an anti-war picture. Is that true and does it justify what they are doing?

I’m curious to hear what others thought.

Other reviews:

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

 

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Serena (Savy Verse & Wit)

40 thoughts on “Tatjana Soli: The Lotus Eaters (2010) Literature and War Readalong October 2011

  1. Tempting.

    I think that one can be addicted to news. Journalists often acknowledge it.

    I also think you’re right when you say we are more bothered by photos than by articles because the photo deprives the person of their privacy. Someone could recognise the person on the picture whereas it’s more difficult in a text. (unless there’s a name, of course). And also, it’s less easy to keep our distance from a photo (more emotional) than from an article. (you need to read and process the info)

    Maybe I’m too optimistic but I think photos can change the world. Don’t you rememeber the one of the student in front of the tanks in Tien An Men? Or the famous girl from the Vietnam war?

    • The thing is that those people are not asked whether they want their picture taken. It’s just done and on top of that they can be recognized.
      Unfortunately I don’t think that pictures change anything. The Vietnam war lasted over 10 years and there were photographers from the very beginning. And there are still wars. One after the other. I think text and stories help much more. Helen thinks often about the fact that the human interest stories help more but the photographers who become famous are those who provide shocking pictures. Although there is a limit. Some photos were apparently too shocking. I presume they were the ones taken from dead US soldiers.
      It’s a very interesting book.

  2. While I do believe that photos can influence events for the better, I often find them too voyeuristic, especially photos of the dead or dying. Sometimes a record is necessary (i.e. photographs of the concentration camps), but sometimes I find them merely sensational.

    It is a tough call, isn’t it? At any rate, the book sounds like fascinating look at the dangerous profession of war journalists, and maybe all war photos really are anti-war photos.

    Still, I find that the war poets of WWI the most influential anti-war propagandists.

    • The war poets of WWI have an impact but I have afeeling they are not as universlly understood as a photo. I think the photos are valuable to make sure we don’t forget but while a war is going, I’m not sure they can help stop it.
      It is a tough call. I couldn’t do it. Because of the danger but alos because I think you shouldn’t take a picture of someone who hasn’t allowed it. I always think it is like stealing something.
      I think she did a good job at giving all te possible interpretations without telling you how you should think or feel. You canread this book and come to either the one or the other conclusion; admiration or disgust.

  3. I’m a little behind in reading the book and need a day or so but then I will be back to comment. I am having the same problem you did…trouble getting into the book! I’ve just hit the 100-page mark soi hopefully what happened for you will happen for me and the book will take off! I am very interested in Helen and like her a lot, not sure what to think of Sam yet!
    I promise I’ll return in a day or two!

    • I’m looking forward to your reaction and review (if you write one). I found the beginning very hard, I didn’t like Sam, I liked Linh from the beginning and Helen. Another proble I had was that I’ve just read The THings THey Carried which is a far superior book. On the other hand it’s alos quite different and it’s unfair to compare. It took 100 pages to not think of it all time.

  4. I think what you say about photos taking away a person’s privacy during their last moments is interesting. One also could argue that these photos may be the truth of what happens during war, but what purpose do they serve exactly? They break our hearts and make us understand that war is cruel, horrific, and senseless, but history shows that wars continue to be fought and I’m not sure any picture will change that.

    I’m glad you were finally able to get lost in the book. I read it last year when it was first published and absolutely loved it. Here’s the link to my review, if you are interested:

    http://diaryofaneccentric.wordpress.com/2010/04/07/review-the-lotus-eaters-by-tatjana-soli/

    • Thanks, Anna, I will include it in the post.
      I really liked it after a while, it was just too close after Tim O’Brien and the love story Sam/Helen annoyed me a bit. It gets better later and we understand the man he is better but at the beginning I just thought “Run, Helen, run”.
      Unfortunately I agree with you, I don’t think photos achieve a lot. Information, maybe, yes, but it’s not enough. And there is alos the danger of people getting used to the horrible things they see and not even react anymore.

  5. While I want to say here that photos are a true account of war, that also is not an absolute given a recent book I read by Errol Morris (http://savvyverseandwit.com/2011/09/believing-is-seeing-by-errol-morris.html). Like writing about war, photos seek to provide viewers with an understanding, a scope, and context of war — to show those who are not there the horrors of war in an attempt not only to prevent it in the future, but also to demonstrate its horrifying beauty. Yes, there is beauty in the artistry of war photography.

    I have a hard time with the lack of privacy of the victims, but without those photos or stories, would these victims exist…would their deaths be in vane? The problem now is that because photographers were in Vietnam and those horrors were brought home and did cause unrest among the public, the photos don’t have the same effect as they once did…we’ve become immune…like the images of sex and murder on the television….

    If you’re interested, here’s my review: http://savvyverseandwit.com/2010/04/the-lotus-eaters-by-tatjana-soli.html

    • I think this is what Helen refers to when she speaks about her talent. The photos wouldn’t make it on the cover of a magazine if they were purely documentary, they are esthetic too. This may sound strange but I agree with you.
      Maybe the photos help memorize the dead. I’m sure they meant something completely different for those who saw them at the time. We’ve seen too much and the fact that poeple become immune bothers me a lot.
      Thanks for the links. I’ll add the review and will read both.
      I don’t know what the other book you mention is about but manipulation was something I was thinking of as well. We belive pictures far more than stories but that they can be higly manipulative.

      • That’s one of the points that Morris makes, but he also makes the point that we can be too speculative about motives of the photographer as well. Perhaps the photo journalists weren’t thinking about anything other than documenting the tragedy. The only way to know that is if they wrote down their thoughts for the series of photos in question.

        I do agree that we become to immune to photos and images these days, they don’t have the impact that they used to…and with digital photography, manipulation is more of a concern in my opinion.

        • This is an aspect Soli covers well too. the photographers just shoot as many pictures as they can sometimes they are in the process of taking picture when something noteworthy happens, sometimes they take the camera because they see something they want to capture.
          Digital photography has opened the door for any kind of treachery.

  6. What I also loved about this book is that it is not about soldiers per se and it is written by someone who was not a soldier nor present during the war. And yet, it felt authentic to a degree.

  7. Sorry, I am still reading so will have to come back and read your post properly later this weekend, but I will mention it was also a slowish starter for me, too. However, once Helen found her feet so to speak and is really doing what she wanted to do in Vietnam the story really does take off. I hope to finish soon, and am very much enjoying this story–interesting to read about a journalist’s perspective on war, more so that she is a woman. I’m not sure how many women journalists/photographers there were in Vietnam–I’m glad you chose a book from this perspective!

    • Interesting that you felt the same way. It’s very slow. I’m looking forward to your review. I think it was particularly interesting because she chose a woman as protagonist. That adds the gender discussion to the profession. At the end of the book she writes that she based the book on real life characters. There were a few but not many and they were not welcome at first.

  8. I’ve often wondered what this book was about – good to know! I think it’s too easy to think of the photograph as ‘real’, when it’s a piece of art like any other, a composition, a choice of shot and perspective. It frames a speaking image, but of course what the image says is highly influenced by the way it’s been taken. Have you read Barthes’ Camera Lucida? Or Sontag on photography? Both excellent critiques that lead into the concept of the hyperreal by Baudrillard – the idea that images then have their own life, and we become convinced by a virtual reality made up of images, like adverts, I think, although Baudrillard infamously chose the Gulf war as one of his hyperreal examples. He described a moment when CNN news reporters were caught, watching a television screen rather than the battle going on beyond them, in order to find out what was happening.

    Images of war are not the same as war, he wants to point out. I think the idea is that thanks to the media coverage, we think we ‘know’ what goes on in a war or revolution, that we can comment on it or understand it. And that is a bit ridiculous, because a bunch of images no matter how horrifying, are not the same thing as an experience of war. It’s a very complex question, this one about photography and its ethical role in reportage. I suppose I think that all archive material – images, diaries, reports and so on, are starting points, but that they require challenging and investigating themselves as subjective fragments of reality rather than scientific proofs.

    • I couldn’t agree more with you. I have a problem with who people say they know what it’s like to have been at war, after having watched a film, a documentary, played a war game, seen a picture… It does help understand but there is no subsitute for experience.
      The book, unlike Barthe’s or Sontag’s analysis, just shows different examples, different possibilities of interpretations but from the perspective of the photographer. What happens once the picture is looked at by someone else isn’t analysed. I think this restrained focus is a good one. First is the incident and then the photographer shooting the picture, they are the core elemenst and from there… The picture undergoes a lot of chnage and change in perception. It’s interesting. She does also touch on the fact that the photographers shoot hundreds of pictures of the same person or thing and then choose the one that has a chance to be published.
      I think I have Barthe’s book, not Sontag’s. Wasn’t Walter Benjamin one of the first to look into this questioning of photography?

        • I was secretly hoping someone would pick Benjamin for the German Literature Month. He should be re-discovered. I think I might have the one or the other Sontag essay on photography. Thanks for reminding me.

  9. I really enjoyed this book! I was so happy it was brought to my attention last year. I read it through the library, but then bought myself my own copy so I could read it again someday!

    • I think it is a book that’s worth re-reading. There are so many ways one can read it. I was most fascinated by the fact that Helen is a photographer but could see how I would focus on other things the next time.
      I liked the last chapters a lot and would have gone on reading.

  10. I give you a lot of credit for hanging in there through 100 pages until the story turned around for you. But it seems like it was well worth the initial struggle. The author is tackling some major issues that must have been incredibly difficult to write. As an author it must be challenging to write the scenes without inserting your own opinion in order to let the reader come to his/her own conclusion, and it sounds like these scenes are filled with moral ambiguity.
    It really makes me want to read this novel just to see how she does it, though sticking it out through the first 100 pages would be tough.

    • To be honest, the books that I haven’t finished can be counted on one hand. But those few landed in the bin.
      It’s an interesting book. (Btw., Soli teaches creative writing at Gotham’s). Danielle and I struggled through the first 100 pages but from what I read Serena and Anna were hooked from the beginning. It could be both ways for you.

  11. Hate to spoil the party but I hated the book. I had the opposite experience from most – I found the first half fairly interesting and had to slog through the rest. I did learn some things about war photographers, but I could have done without the 386 pages of love triangle to get a few gleanings. The combat sections were realistic and interesting (especially the section on the execution of the villager). the depictions of the country were good. The characters were authentic, but not likeable. I disliked Helen and Darrow as individuals and as a couple. The book would have been more enjoyable if it had focused on Linh. The short story of Mai’s death was stand alone, but I couldn’t help but notice Soli stole Katt’s death from All Quiet.

    I felt pummeled by the theme of war photography is addictive and causes you to do insanely dangerous things. As though that was not overdone enough, Soli has Helen go off to the killing fields of Cambodia for the peak of insanity and then she pulls her punches by having a happy ending – absolutely ridiculous.

    After Darrows death, the book jumped the shark for me. Her return home was a terrible chapter. The hippie girl at the air port calling “baby killers” to the vets (how original!), the beach tryst, visiting Darrow’s wife, Lan in the hospital… Atrocious! But by far the worst part was the section on Helen and Linh at his aunt’s house. I had a hard time not throwing up at the romance novel prose. One paragraph sounded like an anatomy lesson. ” A whole braille of touch – tooth on lip, eyelash on nipple, pubic bone on swell of calf.” If you can read that without gagging – you must be a woman. “They woke each day to the tangle of each other’s limbs”. Ditto.

    Some WTF things:
    – Soli refers to the South Vietnamese army as the SVA, I have never seen that. Every one of the many Vietnam War books I have read refer to it as the ARVN.
    – Linh strangles Bao in a restaurant with no regard for being seen?
    – Linh knows they are in deathly danger in Saigon as it falls, but insists she go on one last shoot while at the same time insisting they flee

    • I do agree with you about the ending. It didn’t feel right. I didn’t mention anything because I didn’t want to spoil it for others who have not read the book but it didn’t feel realistic, at least not the happy ending part, agree.
      I also agree on the chapter when she went home. It didn’t feel right but I saw why she added it.
      Now the romance novel prose… That’s the kind of thing that doesn’t bother you as much when you read a foreign language. I just translated the quotes you added into German and they made me cringe. Lol. But even when I read it I thought the braille of touch was somehwat funny.
      I was surprised he got away with killing Bao.
      But still, all in all I liked it. I really liked the descriptions and I liked Helen although she is somewhat mad.

  12. As to the debate on war photographers; they are vultures, but just like the real creatures, they serve a purpose in nature. To be good at your job you must not intervene in a humane way.

    As far as did their photographs have an influence on the outcome of the war, most certainly they did. In fact I would argue that several photos had more influence on the outcome of the war than any other media product.
    1. pictures of the immolating monks directly influenced the Kennedy administrations decision to cut Diem loose resulting in the U.S. stuck with a series of military dictators they had to live with (did the photographers try to put the fires out?)
    2. the Loan execution which, tied with the Tet Offensive, turned the American public against the war
    3. the napalmed girl which hastened our departure
    4. photos of the dead in My Lai which proved the war was corrupting American soldiers

    • My point is that there are still wars, so how successful can photography be? But maybe at that time it was successful. Who knows, why wasn’t it something else that ended the war, can you be so sure it was the pictures? That war lasted quite a long time.
      Your point is my biggest problem. They watch but they don’t do anything. I couldn’t be like that. Maybe, like the creature, they are useful but also quite heartless. And I think many choose that type of photography because it’s a way to get very famous.
      In any case, thanks for your comments. I think they add a lot to the discussion.

  13. This is really interesting. Same with you, I would feel the love triangle as something not interesting but the life of photographers in war is something I haven’t read yet…and I am curious.

    I agree with you, tho I like photography but I never like dying people photo…it is too sad to see

    • I’ve read a few reviews but nobody really paid that much attention to the love story although it is quite central but the theme of war phtography is so much more interesting in this case. I think this is a novel you might like.

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