In Anguli Ma: A Gothic Tale, Australian-Vietnamese writer Chi Vu re-imagines the Buddhist tale of a vicious murderer who collects his victims’ fingers, but is pacified and transformed when he encounters the Buddha. Vu’s Anguli Ma lives among struggling refugees in suburban Melbourne in the early days of the Vietnamese diaspora in the 1980s. And his victims are his own community, the widows, the lost boys and the unaccompanied minors who eke out a living in the factories and abattoirs of a new country. More than moving amongst them, the demon is embraced and given a home, though he quickly bests the vulnerable and gullible Vietnamese refugees making do in overcrowded bungalows. Vu brings to life a previously unrecorded world of ugly un-belonging, her characters seeking to improve their situation through the desperate and doomed establishment of hui, communal investment clubs that have a habit of tearing apart families and destroying friendships.
The seemingly apposite placement of Buddhism and gothic horror is handled deftly in this exquisite novella. We encounter a nameless and rough-living monk making conversions among the homeless in Melbourne’s parks, but who precisely is being converted, and how? Violent and filthy bums shit in the shrubbery but sit as well in meditation, experiencing exquisite insights that are at odds with their past experience – exactly the point of the traditional Anguli Ma tale, which was meant to illustrate that no being, however depraved, is beyond enlightenment. The mendicant monk (and just who he is, and when exactly his teaching takes place, Vu leaves deliciously unexplained, even to the very end) leads his unlikely acolyte into an experience of insight:
Without willing or choosing it, his mind drops beneath the churning waves of anguish into something underneath, as though submerged momentarily into another world. Resting beneath his wandering, agitated mind is the clear and still truth. He has his first taste of not grasping at the future or the past.
Vu’s refugee women, too, bring to mind traditional Buddhist moral tales. I am thinking particularly of the parable of Kisa Gautami, a woman mad with grief at the death of her child who is taught by the Buddha that the loss of loved ones is a universal experience. The middle-aged women Bac and Dao are themselves confronting grief and the loss, not just of loved ones, but of an entire country and a way of life. Dao chides the older Bac for her indulgence in grief at her son’s death on a boat, while Bac compares their own experience to that of the Hungry Ghosts that inhabit the Buddhist cosmos:
We think we have a new beginning because we escaped the terror, and came to a new land. But we haven’t left them behind, they came with us! Can’t you see it?
There is a subtlety in this strange and quite unique little book (and it is little – at 106 pages it is part of boutique Australian publisher Giramondo’s new list of ‘Shorts’), a lightness of touch and lack of sanctimony that renders the hardship of its characters all the more believable, and therefore painful. In seeking protection from a violent tenant the character Dao musters up the bravery to turn to the police, only to be brushed off and made to answer a series of pointless questions about how her name should be pronounced and the exact provenance of her ethnicity.
Vu also shows a very cleverly constructed fictional world in which religion is not separate from the experience of everyday suffering, but an intrinsic part of its purpose. The vicious ghoul Anguli Ma is not a foreign monster, impossible to understand, but someone very like ourselves, removed only be degrees and by levels of experience. And the anger and torment that created him is easily shifted and transformed – hell is available to all, and requires only a small step in the wrong direction to be plunged into.
Anguli Ma: A Gothic Tale by Chi Vu is published by Giramondo
by Walter Mason
Walter Mason is an Australian writer whose book Destination Saigon was named by the Sydney Morning Herald one of the ten best travel books of 2010.
He is currently working on a book about Cambodia to be released in 2013. More at www.waltermason.com