Themes and Meanings
Robert Olen Butler wrote “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain” as one of a series of fifteen linked stories, each narrated by a different Vietnamese character. Most of them had emigrated to Louisiana as part of the Vietnamese diaspora after the war. Both the title piece and the final story of the collection, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992), carry more thematic weight and complexity within that context than if read independently. For example, those reading the final story in isolation would recognize that Ho’s visit to Versailles invokes the historical event of Ho’s efforts to gain an audience with Woodrow Wilson to lobby for Vietnamese representatives in the French parliament. They could not, however, recognize that the reference simultaneously invokes the setting of the first story in the collection, “Open Arms,” which is narrated by a resident of another Versailles, a modern community outside New Orleans with a large North Vietnamese population. “Open Arms” also analyzes a discussion between a Buddhist narrator and a communist leader, among other parallels. However, the story may also be read on its own; indeed, fourteen of the fifteen stories appeared separately before Butler published them in the collection.
The three subplots of historical narrative, fantasy encounter, and contemporary violence intertwine to make the thematic point that the causes and effects of the Vietnam War extend deep into the past, involve spiritual as well as political issues, and perhaps most significantly, persist today, not just in Vietnam but in the United States. Ho’s decision to follow the Western teachings of Karl Marx and Dao’s decision to follow the Eastern spiritual teachings of the Buddha represent a split within the national character that is simultaneously political and psychological, fragmenting both the nation and its individuals. Ho tells Dao, “You have never done the political thing,” correctly predicting that Dao will do nothing with his knowledge that his son-in-law and grandson are murderers. However, Dao counters with the provocative question, “Are there politics where you are now, my friend?” The story’s final words might summarize this thematic aspect: “I wanted to understand everything . . . you knew you had to understand everything or you would be incomplete forever.”
Whether this political and psychic fragmentation can ever be brought together again is left ambiguous at the end. Dao peacefully awaits sleep—and presumably death—at the end of the story in the conviction that he and Ho “will be together again and perhaps we can help each other. I know now what it is that he has forgotten.” However, this optimism is undercut by its exclusive focus on the afterlife rather than the real world of political murder: Does Dao’s final vision of unity and redemption constitute a higher level that subsumes history and violence or only a continuation of the passivity that leaves action in the hands of the violent?
Several variations of fulfilling "The American Dream" are depicted in the collection. To find happiness in love is a primary motif in "Fairy Tale," "Snow," and "Love." Achieving success in business or career is a background premise in "Crickets," in which the narrator says he is his company's best chemical engineer; in "The Trip Back," in which the narrator is a businessman driving an expensive Lexus, is readily able to house and support his wife's grandfather; and in "The American Couple," in which Vinh, the narrator's husband is a successful importer of duck feathers for pillows who has already been to "the slick American places" for vacations.
Concern for family and tradition in the face of others' acculturation is the primary theme of "Crickets," in which the narrator-father wants to do something that will give his son at least a reflection of the father's home culture. The narrator of "The Trip Back" accepts responsibility for the wife's grandfather when other relatives...
(The entire section is 1,667 words.)