So you’ve spent your life accumulating money – you’ve worked hard, invested wisely; every waking moment has been devoted to moneymaking. Well, almost every moment. When you haven’t been making money you’ve been spending it, acquiring things – a new house, a new car.
But what happens when you die? You’ve heard people say things like, “You can’t take your money to the grave.” Invariably, the people who say these things are not your kind of people. They don’t apply themselves to the task of becoming rich, and consequently their things are not as nice as your things. Amongst your friends, you feel confident enough to sneer: that’s exactly the kind of thing poor people would say.
But when you’re alone you can’t help but dwell on the horrible idea that all your wealth might count for nothing in the end. That’s another thing those awful people say, that death is “the great leveller”. Lying awake at night, you picture yourself laid to rest alongside your gardener, or the busker that you ignore outside your office, as if, despite all your hard work and money you were not so different from them after all.
So it’s to your intense relief that you come across the ad for Magnolia Cemetery in one of the investment magazines you subscribe to. The ad promises a “chic burial ground, available to the rich and famous”. The asking price seems steep at first – as much as an apartment in the centre of the city – but then you realise: that’s exactly the point. It’s precisely that exorbitant price that will keep the riff-raff out. Satisfied that at last you have found a way to make your money count in the afterlife, you put down your deposit, and rest easy.
This is the premise behind A cemetery for the living, a short story by Vietnamese author Di Li. In the story, Vietnam’s wealthy elite buy up plots in Magnolia Cemetery in droves, putting up fences and adding value to their new property by installing carpets of green grass, flower beds, rocking chairs and fake oak dining sets. As space in the cemetery runs out, prices skyrocket. Speculators buy multiple plots, anticipating healthy profits in the future. Meanwhile, the cemetery itself remains empty, because the buyers are all young and healthy, in the prime of their lives.
The story is an absurdist portrait of a society that has its values upside-down. But for all its absurdity, it’s not too far from the truth. At a recent bookstore talk in Hanoi, Di Li explained that in modern-day Vietnam a rampant form of Western influenced materialism is quickly overtaking more traditional values. In a society with deep and relatively recent memories of extreme poverty – three decades of war followed by a US trade embargo combined to cripple Vietnam’s economy in the ‘80s and early ‘90s – this new materialism has taken on a distinctly ostentatious tone. A luxury car, said Di Li, is the first in a succession of must-have purchases to let your neighbours know just how much money you have. Wandering the streets of Hanoi, it’s not hard to see what she means – amidst the streams of bicycles and scooters there are more and more four-wheeled islands bearing luxury badges.
It’s a marker of how all-conquering the impulse to consume can be that Di Li focuses her story on death and the afterlife. The cult of ancestor worship is one of Vietnam’s deepest and most important cultural traditions – in almost every Vietnamese home you’ll find an altar to the family’s ancestors – and is one of the key components of the traditional Vietnamese emphasis on communal, as opposed to individual, life. Within this framework, self-sacrifice – for one’s parents, or one’s children – is the ultimate virtue. Yet, as Di Li’s story illustrates, traditional values can be all too easily subverted by the materialist impulse. When the communal ethic of ancestor worship is replaced with an individualist world-view, the Vietnamese preoccupation with death becomes just another opportunity to parade one’s wealth.
What’s interesting here from a Western perspective is that Eastern philosophy and spirituality have so often been seen as alternatives or remedies to consumerism. It’s a familiar story, with interchangeable destinations – an Indian ashram, a Tibetan monastery – but experience shows that Oriental mysticism and materialism are by no means mutually exclusive. At that same bookstore talk in Hanoi, visiting Dutch poet Dick Gebuys spoke about his shock when he came across a mega-shopping centre in Ho Chi Minh City named Zen Plaza. It seems an impossible oxymoron – the ascetic contemplation of Zen Buddhism on the one hand and the gaudy narcissism of 21st century luxury shopping on the other – but on closer inspection the juxtaposition has a certain logic to it.
When Eastern philosophy is shorn of its communal foundation, it can easily become just another product in a world in which anything and everything is there to be consumed. An individualist approach to philosophy and spirituality (from either hemisphere) focuses on what a particular form of thinking or practice can do for me: how can I be happy, how do I achieve enlightenment? In that context, we can see how the qualities of Zen Buddhism – peacefulness and tranquillity – might be used to sell a shopping plaza, or how the cult of ancestor worship can become a cult of self-worship.
It’s nice to know then that this self-involved bubble – which allows empty materialism to pervade every aspect of our lives – is easier to puncture than we might imagine. In A cemetery for the living, the lavishly appointed cemetery becomes a wonderful adventure park for the local children, who have never seen so much money poured into local infrastructure in this poor mountainous region (except for the nearby golf course, but the children aren’t allowed there). It’s through this initially irksome intrusion that the story’s narrator – the cemetery’s landscape architect – is drawn out of his isolation.
This, it seems, is a way out of the rat race, which after all requires us to live, work and consume as discrete individuals; to allow ourselves to be punctured by the lives of others.