Memoir Recalls The Wisdom Of Barefoot Doctors

    "It’s an unputdownable tale, told in an intimate, oral style with an unassuming wisdom, a thrilling, Castaneda-like search for knowledge, as well as a moving tribute to the most profound love between a father and son." Nick DiMartino, University Bookstore, Seattle, selected as 2004 Book of the Year

    I’ve worked with a lot of communal elders, spiritual and medicinal elders. Often these gentle men are way outside languages I can navigate. Almost always when I’m without a clue, very cool younger men interpret between us, between our worlds. Interpreters intend well, and I mean them no harm, but all three of us know that he and I construct a third world out of our elder uncle’s spoken word. A great interpreter – that is, an intelligent and generous one – is rare. Just as rare as understanding between our distant worlds.

    I apologize for this, my prolonged preface in what promised to be a review of Quang Van Nguyen’s new memoir Fourth Uncle in the Mountain. A quick note, if not a more deserved acknowledgement of the difficulty of cross-cultural writing, is important, indeed necessary, to credit the doubtless dogged work done between Master Quang and Fourth Uncle co-author Marjorie Pivar.

    Fourth Uncle reads in the direct and confident phrasing and tone true to a "barefoot doctor." That is to say, there is no National Geographic-like emotional distancing ("these noble, if quaint, peoples believe that …"). There are no well-meaning interpreter’s estimates of what hip American readers are likely to understand. Fourth Uncle is a matter-of-fact account of stressed-out medical students playing stupid pranks, unhappy ghosts terrifying townsfolk, and so much in between.

    The Fourth Uncle in the title Fourth Uncle in the Mountain is the name of the author’s most esteemed teacher out of several successive priests and masters entrusted by Quang Van Nguyen’s father to discipline and school him during his youth in Vietnam. Master Quang’s grandfather found Fourth Uncle during the 1860s, meditating at the far end of a cave complex deep inside The Forbidden Mountain (Nui Cam) of the Mekong Delta in the southernmost corner of the Republic of South Vietnam.

    Fourth Uncle is about father and son healers. They are organic pharmacologists and accomplished acupuncturists; they are diagnosticians in the Chinese chi system of body energy and they are practitioners of native shamanic arts. It is a memoir of two barefoot doctors’ remarkable lives – lives of stubborn devotion to discipline, to learning and tending to the suffering of literally thousands of children, adults and perished people’s lingering spirits.

    Fourth Uncle in the Mountain is a great story about two simply good men. It is told simply, but simplicity should never be mistaken for a lack of emotional complexity, intellectual refinement or overwhelming humanity. It is all that.

    Next month: A feature by the author on the story behind Fourth Uncle in the Mountain.



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