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Saigon Calling by Marcelino Truong review – an amazing achievement

This second part of the author’s Vietnam war memoir skilfully combines history and politics with a witty and poignant family story

Marcelino Truong’s complex, finely judged and utterly riveting memoir is a sequel to his 2016 book, Such a Lovely Little War, in which he told the story, as seen through his boyhood eyes, of Saigon at the beginning of the 60s, when his diplomat father, Khanh, was the personal interpreter of the prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem. This volume, however, is set not in Saigon, but in London, where Khanh has been appointed to a high-ranking job at the Vietnamese embassy – though the grim news from home is, of course, never any further away than the next BBC bulletin. In South Vietnam, General Khanh, widely seen as an American puppet, has taken over as the country’s leader following the assassination of President Diem. In the communist north, the Viet Cong are growing ever stronger and more vicious, with the result that President Johnson is shortly to put US troops on the ground.

For all the city’s outward stiffness, the young Marcel likes almost-swinging London. He and his three siblings adore Doctor Who and Top of the Pops; it’s no secret that he longs to own a pair of the new pointed shoes and a Beatles-style military jacket (and failing that, a Dinky toy Batmobile). But life isn’t always easy. Lonely in Wimbledon, his French mother, Yvette, continues to struggle with bipolar disorder, relying on Valium to get her through the dank, British days. Meanwhile, his father, worried sick for his parents trapped in Saigon, must deal with the growing realisation that his dreams for democracy in Vietnam are likely, now, to come to nothing. Aware of what lies ahead, he quits his job at the embassy, swapping it for less lucrative work as a translator for Reuters.

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