One of the goals I have for 2010 is to read all the books that I bought through the years (I refrain from the word “resolution” because, like “diet”, it just calls for an epic failure). For the first time in a decade or so, I finished reading three books in a single month, and I unconsciously chose death as the theme for January. It may be because of the recent and sudden deaths of two close friends, my longtime (mild) fascination with anything morbid, or that death falls into what I call the five “L”s of fiction: Life, Love, Lust, Lunacy and Loss.

Taking a look at my (newly organized) bookshelf, I realized that several unread books also have common themes, and if I continue reading according to theme and do little reviews on them, I can finish my reading backlog and use it as a medium-term writing exercise. I’ll hit two birds in one stone through 17 cycles. This being the first cycle, I definitely have a long way to go.

A cruel mistake with cruel consequences

Back in October 2009, I spotted The Girl in the Picture: the Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph, and the Vietnam War by Denise Chong in a cute and cozy secondhand bookstore in Langkawi, Malaysia. I have to admit that I was duped by it; I thought it was an authentic book and, in my excitement upon finding it amid classics and thrillers, didn’t even bother to inspect it more closely. I realized that the pages were mere photocopies (reminiscent of our thoroughly photocopied textbooks back in college) and that the cover was a reproduction only when I started reading the material. While the aesthetics were bad (nothing beats a professionally bound and printed book, and I think “pirating” it was an injustice), the same absolutely cannot be said about the content: it was highly personal, fast-paced, heartbreaking and well-written. This book had me reading up to as late as four in the morning.

Nick Ut’s most famous black-and-white photograph leads to a gripping story captured by Chong — from the time Kim Phuc‘s family started, grew and prospered in a South Vietnamese province to that fateful day, when a pilot’s mistake led to a warplane dropping napalm on Kim’s village, and on to Kim’s experience as a propaganda tool by the Vietnamese Communist government, her studies in Ho Chi Minh and Cuba, her marriage and subsequent defection to the West, her being brought out of hiding due to worldwide interest, and her work in the international arena as a promoter of peace. As I’ve said before, even war has unwritten rules, and a violation of a certain rule (avoid harming civilians, especially women and children) and that violation’s aftereffects take the spotlight here. The book mixes Kim’s and her mother’s account of the events before and after the bombing with Vietnam’s rich and sad, bullet-ridden history; conversations with some of the people directly involved with the attack and Kim’s recuperation, treatment and welfare; and depictions of what Trang Bang, Frankfurt, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, Cuba, Gander and Ajax were like when Kim was there.

In my opinion, The Girl in the Picture emphasizes death by telling of a woman’s struggle to find freedom and contentment given all the obstacles that life has dealt her. It’s not just about her very close brush with death that afternoon in Trang Bang; it is also about the death that a person can experience through physical, emotional, psychological and ideological hardship. The extensive scars she bears on her back can also stand for the adversities she had to endure, and also as a reminder of how death gave way to life. The heart, mind and soul can die long before the body does, and Kim Phuc’s life story shows how she has avoided becoming a mere statistic in many ways.

“Why me?” is a recurring question throughout this non-fiction work, and Kim finds the answer in due time. Death was both a threat and motivator for Kim; she made her life into an admirable personal peace mission as a result. Take note that she should not be seen as the ultimate heroine: like any human being, she also made mistakes, was prone to episodes of selfishness, and came to decisions that run against her family’s wishes (her change of religion from Cao Dai to Christianity comes to mind). This is where I think the book makes the most impact: what would another man or woman do if he/she were in her shoes.

The Girl in the Picture: the Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph, and the Vietnam War, Denise Chong
Paperback, Penguin Books

(Next: “The Beta Male becomes a Death Merchant”: A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore)