A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain Summary
by Robert Olen Butler

Start Your Free Trial

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Download A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The title story in Butler’s 1992 collection begins with Dao, a very old Vietnamese man who now lives in New Orleans with his family, recounting his most recent dream in which he is visited by the ghost of former Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, whom he had known in London in 1917 and in Paris in 1918. Dao’s three dreamed conversations with Ho Chi Minh alternate with his narration of scenes in which he becomes convinced that his extended family is keeping a secret from him. He suspects, however, that the mystery is connected with the recent murder of the publisher of a Vietnamese newspaper in New Orleans. Dao engages in dream conversations with Ho Chi Minh in which they debate the two divergent paths they chose: Dao became a Buddhist, and Ho Chi Minh led a political revolution and then a war. Dao finally comes to realize that his son-in-law and grandson were directly involved in the recent political murder.

Dao’s story interlaces the past and his dreams with the present, a plot structure realistically motivated by the aging narrator’s inability to separate reality and fantasy, past and present. At the level of technique, this intertwining of the three strands is reinforced with multiple patterns of imagery. The title of both the story and the book, the image of “a good scent from a strange mountain,” illustrates Butler’s method. The phrase itself is a translation of the four Chinese characters Bao Son Ky Huong, the saying of the Hoa Haos, the Buddhist sect to which Dao belongs. The story uses a variety of scents, particularly that of sugar (Ho Chi Minh had been a pastry cook) as vehicles for exploring and giving nuance to the story’s main themes.

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, that they persist today, not just in Vietnam but in the United States. Ho Chi Minh’s decision to follow the Western materialist teachings of Karl Marx and Dao’s decision to follow the Eastern spiritual teachings of Buddha represent a split within the national character that is simultaneously political and psychological, fragmenting both the nation and its individuals. Whether this political and psychic fragmentation can ever be brought together again is left ambiguous at the end.

Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Dao, a very old Vietnamese man who lives in New Orleans with his family, begins by recounting his most recent dream, in which he is visited by the ghost of former Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, whom he had known in Europe as a young man. The Vietnamese leader, then known as Nguyen Ai Quoc (“Nguyen the Patriot”), lived in London from 1915 to 1917 and in France from 1917 to 1923. Dao was a dishwasher at the London hotel where Ho was a pastry cook. Dao alludes to the work Ho did retouching photos in France.

Dao, who has three dream conversations with Ho, alternates between narrating details of his dreams and describing recent developments in his extended family. He realizes that they are keeping a secret from him but is unable to guess what it concerns. He suspects, however, that the mystery is connected with a recent murder. Nguyen Bich Le, publisher of a Vietnamese newspaper in New Orleans, was shot the week before because he wrote an article arguing that it was time for Vietnamese expatriates to accept the reality of the communist government in Vietnam and to begin to work with the people who control their home country. A nameless representative of a Vietnamese anticommunist group telephoned the paper to claim credit for the murder.

In Dao’s three dream conversations with Ho, they recall their past and debate the divergent paths they chose: Dao became a Buddhist and Ho led a political revolution and then a war. Dao finally comes to realize that his son-in-law, Thang, and grandson, Loi, were directly involved in the...

(The entire section is 1,721 words.)