Extract: The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Posted on 16th March 2017 by Sally Campbell & Martha Greengrass
What does it mean to be a refugee? How does identity survive when it is moved far from the customs, memories and people amidst which it was formed? These are the questions Viet Thanh Nguyen attempts to answer in his short story collection, The Refugees. Described as ‘beautiful and heartrending' by Joyce Carol Oates in The New Yorker, these stories are a testament to the endurance of the human spirit beyond borders and nationhood. Here we present an extract from ‘The Transplant’ to introduce Viet Thanh Nguyen’s timely and moving collection.
The Transplant

Many unexpected things had happened to Arthur Arellano, and the transformation of his modest garage into a warehouse, stacked with boxes upon cardboard boxes of counterfeit goods, was far from the most surprising. Written on the boxes were names like Chanel, Versace, and Givenchy, designers of luxuries far beyond the reach of Arthur and his wife, Norma. Their presence made Arthur uneasy, and so it was that in the week after Louis Vu delivered this unforeseen wealth to the Arellanos, Arthur found himself slipping out of his rented house at odd hours, stealing down the pebbly driveway past his Chevy Nova, and opening the garage door to ponder the goods with which he was now living so intimately.

Even under the cover of night, Arthur resisted the urge to pocket a Prada wallet or a pair of Yves Saint Laurent cuff links, even though Louis ended nearly every phone call by saying, “Help yourself.” But Arthur could not help himself, for he was troubled by a lingering sense of guilt and a fear of the law, trepidations that Louis addressed during their weekly lunch at Brodard’s, where, under Louis’s tutelage, Arthur had cultivated a keen taste for Vietnamese fare. According to Louis, Brodard’s was the finest example of such cuisine in the Little Saigon of Orange County. As Arthur ate the first course on their most recent visit, a succulent salad of rare beef sliced paper-thin and marinated in lemon and ginger grass, a cousin to the ceviche he loved, he wondered how the same dish would taste in Vietnam. Usually Louis would hold forth on how the dishes at Brodard’s were even tastier than those in the homeland itself, but as the waiter cleared away the plate, Louis chose another subject: why his business did more good than harm.

“It’s like beautiful people and ugly people,” Louis sad. “Beautiful people can’t let on that they need ugly people. But without the ugly, the beautiful wouldn’t look half so good. Am I right? Tell me I’m right.”

Arthur eyed the next course the waiter was slipping onto their table, six roasted squab fetchingly arrayed on a bed of romaine lettuce. “I suppose you’re right,” said Arthur, whose grasp of capitalism was tenuous at best. “Those look delicious.”

The moral of the story is this,” Louis said, choosing a bird for himself. “The more fakes there are, the more that people who can’t buy the real things want them. And the more people buy the fakes, the more the real things are worth. Everybody wins.”

“That’s the way you see things,” said Arthur, lifting a squab by its slender little leg. “But don’t you think you’re just telling yourself what you want to hear?”

“Of course I’m telling myself what I want to hear!” Louis shook his head in mock exasperation, his eyes wide behind his sculptural Dolce & Gabbana eyeglasses. “We all tell ourselves what we want to hear. The point, Arthur, is this: Do you want to hear what I’m telling myself?”


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