Rerun: Bufes

I’ve written here several times about the objets d’art collected over my years working abroad. They have not changed, but they’re worth a second look.

These odds and ends that decorate my house are from around the world, especially from Asia. I have half a dozen paintings, oils and water colors, painted by South Vietnamese artists, that I bought over the years in Vietnam. On my desk is a coffee tile, now cracked, mounted in wood, showing the Chinese character for dao (道), meaning “way” or “path”—the source of Taoism. A fish basket table stands beside my piano, and rounded wooden stools are by the fireplace. Two white ceramic garden seats, two to three feet high, sit on my deck. One is perforated to show the empty spaces between leaves. The other, completely solid, is three elephant heads formed into a single column—it’s from Laos, the land that once worshipped an elephant god with one head but three faces, each with a trunk.

On the wall in my piano room is a painting of the cathedral in Kiev. Nearby is the sculptured head of Nefertiti, the Egyptian queen. Over the fireplace in the sun room is a rendering of an Aztec face. Nearby, hung on the wall by my reading chair, is a copy of the head of Mary in Michelangelo’s sculpture called Pietà on display in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

But the items that get the most attention are my bufes, that is, “big ugly fucking elephants,” as the soldiers and Marines used to call them. These are three-feet tall Vietnamese ceramic figures of elephants with ornamental head dresses and decorated saddles. I have them in a variety of sizes and colors.

I bought the bufes in Vietnam and displayed them in the various villas I had with my family over the years in Saigon. I couldn’t resist talking about them in my novel, Last of the Annamese, set in Vietnam. Early in the story, Ike and Chuck, housemates, are entertaining a visiting U.S. Marine colonel. Also present is Molly, the nurse known for her irreverence and rangy language. The scene reads as follows:

            After dinner, the guests adjourned to the living room for brandy. Molly sat next to the colonel, munched chocolates served by Oanh [the servant], and asked for an ice cube in her snifter. Chuck gave her one without comment, but [Colonel] Macintosh laughed.

            “Sorry,” she said to the colonel, “but if it’s worth snorting, it’s worth snorting on the rocks.”

            Macintosh eyed the ceramic elephants—one green, one purple—supporting the glass top of the cocktail table. “I see a lot of these. Are they a Saigon special?”

            “We call them bufes—big ugly fucking elephants.” Molly ignored Ike’s wince. “Yeah, you can pick them up on Tu Do [Street] for a few thousand pee [GI slang for piaster].” She held her glass to Chuck. “Would you?”

End of quote.

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