‘A sense of identity’ – John Saul

On writing ‘Bánh ga to’ from Issue Six of The Lonely Crowd.

While death, violence, sex and Nazi Germany continue to head the list of themes making satisfying reads for many readers—and many authors—it’s good to know that fiction can take up a very different subject and still find readers. If Bánh ga to has a subject at all, it is a sense of identity. The narrator meets a woman in the Vietnamese countryside, a stranger, who turns to him and says—well, I won’t say, as I don’t wish to spoil my own story. Her words in effect confront him with the idea he may not be the individual, bounded by sharply demarcated lines, he thinks himself as. Disturbed by her remark, his sense of identity is shaken. He’s being told he (his sense of self) is somehow involved with, connected to others (that is, people who are ostensibly others). Are we being told about souls, or something spiritual? Possibly.

But where does this idea come from? My immediate answer to this question is: from other cultures. A looseness or change in identity is not readily a theme in Anglo-Saxon fiction, but elsewhere it is. Franz Kafka has his man wake as an insect. Julio Cortázar has his visitor to an aquarium become an axolotl. Samuel Beckett, who may be thought of as an Irish-French author, has his characters change names. In a film directed by the Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki all the male characters have the same name (Frank). In these universes a person’s identity may well waiver, wander, disconnect and reconnect, and it is from sources such as these—now I give the matter thought—that the central idea of ‘Bánh ga to’ draws.

If anyone should detect the sound of a bee in my bonnet, they would be hearing rightly, I do have a bee in there. More than ever, there is a need to make full, abundant contact with other cultures and countries, and reading fiction in translation is to walk through an open door to other ways of being. This fiction, in forming just a fraction of all there is to read in English, tends to be of a relatively high standard, and often can open up new possibilities to the author (and reader), as with ‘Bánh ga to’. It can foster innovative ideas, as well as being a source of enrichment and delight.

John Saul was born and grew up in Liverpool. After a career in teaching he was for many years the translator for Greenpeace in Germany. He now lives in Suffolk. He is the author of four collections of short stories, Call It Tender, The Most Serene Republic, As Rivers Flow and even the butterfly must endure the storm, as well as three novels, Heron and Quin, Finistère and Seventeen. The latter two are available on Amazon Kindle. His stories have appeared in publications throughout the UK and internationally, with work shortlisted for the 2012 Dalkey Archive anthology of Best European Fiction and the 2015 Seán Ó Faoláin international prize.

He has been on panels selecting the winners to several short story competitions, and has written about fiction for the Guardian, Independent and Observer.

Copyright © John Saul, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.