Where does the story of Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong take place? Upon reading the story, one would first assume that it takes place in Vietnam. Upon further examination, however, it becomes quite evident that it really takes place inside Rat Kiley’s head. This isn’t to declare the story false; instead, one should examine the influence and literary freedom that Rat flexes upon the truth.
“For Rat Kiley… facts were formed by sensation, not the other way around.” (101) The story occurs in two separate but equally chaotic places: Vietnam, and Rat’s head. The story intertwines between the two settings, and in order to completely grasp the idea behind them, one must first recognize, then separate, and analyze the two settings.
Upon the first reading of this work, the reader finds himself dropping into the story of a seemingly misplaced girl in Vietnam. The role of Rat Kiley seems somewhat minor and irrelevant. Upon the second and third times through, however, his role as the storyteller stands out. It becomes more evident that he holds Mary Anne with the highest regard. He romanticizes her relationship with the war.
He is so amazed by the fact that a girl can be seduced by the lure of the wilderness that he begins to talk about her with the listeners as if she were the attractive girl from school that everyone knows but nobody dates. ” ‘You know…I loved her. Mary Anne made you think about those girls back home, how clean and innocent they all are.’ ” (123)
Rat is pushing his views upon the listener. He is shaping how the story is seen. The reader sees “triple-canopied jungle, mountains unfolding into higher mountains, ravines and gorges and fast-moving rivers and waterfalls and exotic butterflies and steep cliffs and smoky little hamlets and great valleys of bamboo and elephant grass.” (103) The actual reality of the situation is added by the narrator, as extrapolated from Rat: that they were in an almost completely indefensible situation. Had somebody cared enough to take control of the little base, there would be no resistance.
Rat wanted to let the reader know his opinion on the citizens of the Viet Cong, how he wants the listener to think of them. “Mary Anne asked, ‘They’re human beings, aren’t they? Like everybody else?’ Fossie nodded. He loved her.” (107) Rat lets us know that he thinks the VC are less than human. Why did Fossie nod, in Rat’s opinion? Not because he thought Fossie felt she was right, but because he loved her. Because Rat feels that the VC are subhuman, part of the jungle, he sees Fossie’s nod as a patronizing nod to an unknowing inductee to the jungle.
Rat, at every turn, tries to “make [the truth] burn so hot that you would feel exactly what he felt.” (101) Rat makes the reader constantly want to love Vietnam, to love the intricacies of the jungle, to love the thrill of danger and imminent threat of death. ” ‘It’s like trying to tell somebody what chocolate tastes like.’ ” (123) The audience gets a somewhat gentle reminder from Mitchell Sanders, as he declares ” ‘Or shit.’ ” (123) “But Rat Kiley couldn’t help it. He wanted to bracket the full range of meaning.” (116) Rat wants to inject within the reader a love similar to his toward Mary Anne.
He wants the reader to want to become one with the jungle. He wants the reader to understand that there is a base human connection with nature and that one doesn’t have to be a man to feel it. It isn’t about man vs. woman, it’s about humans vs. nature. Everybody comes in without a clue. They get their view on the future and humanity raped away by the deflowering of reality in the jungle. They begin to understand what matters and what doesn’t.
On its superficial level, Song Tra Bong is about a story. This story takes place within a character. Rat “had a tendency to stop now and then, interrupting the flow, inserting little clarifications or bits of analysis and personal opinion.” (116) Rat molded the view of the story. He shows the reader what Rat deems important, and he constantly adds his own twist to it all. As he said, he loved her. He is going to put her on a pedestal for the world to view and appreciate. On the top, the character (at this level, the only one that matters) is the setting. Just as Vietnam had its oddities and tendencies, Rat’s mind had its own pockmarked landscape with its own jungles and rain forests.
Now that one has identified the skew of the stained glass window the story is viewed through, one can begin to fully appreciate what happened to Mary Anne, and the conflict she encounters. She finds herself torn between the civilized world which has her long time love, and the uncivilized world, Vietnam where she can exist in her purest form.
There is a slow transition, as she appears in preppy clothes, and she moves to “the habits of the bush. No cosmetics, no fingernail filing. She stopped wearing jewelry, cut her hair short, and wrapped it in a dark green bandanna.” (109) She finishes in a bizarre fashion, wearing her culottes, pink sweater, and tongue necklace. “She had crossed to the other side. She was part of the land.” (125) How does this happen? What makes this girl who has everything she wants to give it all up to live like an animal?
Mary Anne finally shed the illusions of grandeur from home and decided she wanted to be a woman of the bush. It all starts with natural curiosity. Mary Anne wants to understand the ways of war. She wants to understand its people. However, she inexplicably finds herself out on ambush with the Green Berets. “The Endorphins start to flow, and the adrenaline and you hold your breath and creep quietly through the moonlit nightscapes; you become intimate with danger; you’re in touch with the far side of yourself, as though it’s another hemisphere.” (123) She is beginning to become seduced by her basic human instincts, the ones that say “Organized society is bad. Self-dependency is good. One should live within the wilderness. One should wear a necklace of tongues.”
Being set in Vietnam, such a recognizable word, one so synonymous with war, the irony of the situation leaps off the pages. Here is a man who has been in-country for a decent amount of time. By bringing his girlfriend over, he is bringing into the fray somebody who has no idea of the dangers of the bush, somebody who, being a girl, and according to modern and past military policy, shouldn’t have been there.
He should be the one who, in relation to her, understands the war. However, this doesn’t hold true. She becomes the understanding and wise one, as she exclaims “You hide in this little fortress, behind wire and sandbags, and you don’t know what’s out there or what it’s all about or how it feels to really live in it.” (121) A month earlier, he could have told her the exact same thing to prevent her from becoming so intimate with the country, its inhabitants, and the war itself.
At its base level, the inner core of Song Tra Bong, the interaction between setting and character is immense. So immense, in fact, that the setting itself becomes a character, interacting with the other characters, causing conflict. At its base level, Song Tra Bong is about the land, and maturing to return to innocence. It’s about evolving so one can devolve. It’s about returning to the land, and it’s about the land seducing people to return to it. “‘Sometimes I want to eat this place. Vietnam. I want to swallow the whole country – the dirt, the death – I just want to eat it and have it there inside me. … I feel close to myself.’ “(121) Mary Anne now knows who she is. She has found her calling.
In Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong, the setting is paramount. If one were to take this story and place it in New York City, it would be laughed at. As Mary Anne said, “‘You can’t feel like [this] anywhere else.’ “(121) The story takes place in two places. On one level, it takes place in the heart of the jungle, deep in Vietnam. On this level, the setting plays such an important role that it becomes a character.
It seduces Mary Anne, and it talks to her. The story also takes place in the heart of Rat Kiley. On this level, the character influences the story in such a way that he becomes the top-level setting. In the end, ” ‘…it wasn’t all that complicated. The girl joined the zoo. One more animal – end of story.’ “(117) But as Mitchell Sanders not-so-gently tells Rat ” ‘ Yeah, fine. But tell it right.’ “(117), the reader must also try to read it right. If the different settings are identified, separated, and analyzed, then the true idea behind the story comes out.