Frederic Prokosch's novel The Asiatics and Anh Hung Tran's film Scent of Green Papaya are two of my all-time favorites. What they have in common is that neither is entirely what it seems to be.
Here is Prokosch's protagonist crossing the salt marshes as his adventure takes him from Teheran to Meshed:
We stopped at tea-houses and ate sardines and biscuits and drank dark tea. Everyone was smoking opium. Old men sat in the shadows, nursing their sore feet and grumbling... Everywhere, accompanying us as inevitably as the tinkling of bells, was the smell of sweat and opium. The heat kept me weary and feverish all day, and at night I was forever dreaming ominous and frightening things. Slowly we crossed the salty lands towards Meshed.
The salt marshes glittered like snow. My eyes began to ache, my senses were badgered gently into a mild hysteria by the icy flicker of sunlight upon the lands that rippled away to the left. Thin and contemptible thoughts shot in an dout of my mind; bits of irritability splinters of suspicion, of jealousy, of detestation, of loneliness, of wicked understanding. Everyone around me and everyone I'd ever known appeared to me during these three hours in a glassy unpleasant light. And I swore to myself that I'd keep clear of them all. Watch them if you wish, so I muttered to myself: but don't let them toy with you, don't let them wriggle their way into that part of you that matters. Be alone. Be proud...
The novel, written in the 1930's about a journey during the early part of that decade, was very well received not only by the public but by other, better-known writers of that period -- Thomas Mann and TS Eliot among them. What is hard to believe if you've read the book -- with its detailed descriptions of Central and Southeast Asia -- is that Prokosch had never been there. He wrote the book when he was a young graduate student at Yale from Wisconsin, a new writer who had immersed himself in old maps and accounts of journeys before writing The Asiatics. He went on to write a dozen novels, several books of poetry, and a memoir, Voices. He was also a passionate printer of books. And a forger.
I haven't read his memoir so I don't know whether he mentions the forgery problem.. Here's one description of what happened from the University of Virginia Library:
The University of Virginia Library has acquired two rare and privately printed booklets of poetry written by T.S. Eliot, including a minor poem, "Virginia," that has a U.Va. connection in its origins...
..The finely printed books were published by Frederic Prokosch, an American novelist and poet, in 1935, when Eliot was at the height of his career and already one of the most celebrated and influential poets of the 20th century. Only about 20 copies of each chapbook were published and only a handful may be found today in libraries, said Kendon L. Stubbs, deputy University Librarian...
...It is likely that the American-born Eliot, who lived in London and had become a British citizen, wrote the short poem "Virginia" after his 1933 visit here, Stubbs said. And it is probable that to print the "Words for Music" booklet Prokosch drew the text of the two Eliot poems straight from the U.Va. quarterly, where he had come across them.
Themes of time and place -- a slow river, children's voices in an orchard -- found in "Words for Music" appear later in Eliot's masterpiece "Four Quartets," Stubbs noted.
Prokosch, whose own fiction at the time was the subject of international acclaim, had also published poetry in the VQR, which was founded in 1925 and growing in prestige. On the side, he had begun to print small limited-edition chapbooks of poems by well-known writers.
Pleased with the "Words for Music" publication when he received it as a surprise gift from Prokosch, Eliot the following year sent the younger writer the text of "Two Poems" and paid him to publish it so Eliot could use it to give to friends as a fine-press Christmas card. The two writers maintained a cordial relationship in the years to come...
...In the 1960s Prokosch, his writing career in decline, became involved in a publishing deception that, when discovered, shocked the rare-book community, according to George Riser of the Library's Special Collections staff. Prokosch again printed some fine chapbooks by well known poets but this time pre-dated the publication to the 1930s to make them appear rare. "Words for Music" and "Two Poems" are not among the forgeries.
For more on this, and view of the chapbooks themselves, take a look here.
Anh Hung Tran's film is far from being a forgery. The Scent of Green Papaya has the same authenticity that you feel when you read The Asiatics.
This is a film of such beauty that, even if the story were dull or inauthentic, you'd have a hard time taking your eyes away from the screen. When I think about it, I think of the little patio where the food is cooked. Mui is a country child who has arrived in the Saigon household of a middle-class family in the 1950's to be brought up as a family servant and who grows up in the household until that family -- and her own life -- change completely. The sounds of the city, the weather, the breezes, the smell of the cooking -- all are part of the memory of the film. You are there in Saigon before the war begins.
But then again, you are not. Watch the film over and over again and you will still not quite believe that it was shot entirely in a studio in Paris. I've tried to find the hidden seams in the photography and can't.