Nam de Plume


Worlds succumb to shell shock, just as people do, in The Dragon Hunt, the first story collection by Vietnamese writer Tran Vu to appear in English. From the hallucinatory title novella, a meditation on guilt and self-destruction in his native land, to the excruciating realism of the auto biographical story “The Coral Reef,” which recounts the shipwreck of a refugee boat, Vu’s concentrated, painfully graphic writing seems to fictionalize the psychic landscapes of his own scarred history.

Following the North Vietnamese invasion in the ’70s, Vu and his brother attempted to escape 15 times, and eventually succeeded after numerous roadblocks, bribes, and other horrors. (Their father died, and their mother was left behind.) For his characters, loss and cruelty are the standards by which to measure experience, and love is bound by the erotics of pain. Even seemingly innocuous phenomena are reminders of violence—rice wine is like “fetid blood, hot, bitter,” and the sound of a girl walking in clogs is like “the blows of butchers’ cleavers on the day of a funeral banquet.” Such grim intensity can be unsettling, but Vu’s an unusually daring writer, who is equally persuasive whether working in a naturalistic or a surreal vein.

The most striking of Dragon Hunt‘s five stylistically different stories is perhaps the deliberately unliterary “Coral Reef”—20 pages of
diary entries detailing the thirst, drownings, and nautical disasters that plague a group of refugees escaping in an overloaded boat. The story slams to a close in medias res; Vu’s vision has no room for happy endings.

While “The Coral Reef” zooms in on a life-and-death struggle, most of the other narratives explore the aftermath of such ordeals. In the harrowing “Gunboat on the Yangtze,” for example, two refugee siblings who have been horribly wounded—one physically, the other psychically—seek comfort in incest. Vivid sensory detail brews a menacing atmosphere—the brother’s cello sings out a “shrill, razor-sharp sound, like a sliver of glass ripping through flesh.”

Vu can veil his themes as deftly as he states them, and in the last two stories (“Dragon Hunt” and “Nha Nam”) he uses whimsy—including a group cameo by a flock of adorable dragons tossing flames “light as eggshells”—to hint at the anguished subtext. Though they contain no description of literal atrocities, only dreamlike pictures (the dragons dying in a hail of machine gun fire, for example), the stories point to a culture’s devastation, a catastrophe that has marked survivors with “the stamp of our era, the seal of death, the indelible proof of a reality erased, discarded by history.” Nowhere in the volume does Vu depict this devastation overtly, and the settings are too vague or too surreal to give most Western readers a clear picture of Vietnam. Nevertheless, the constant stream of violent images and references—a character’s allusion to being raped at sea, another’s fondness for recounting mass murders from ancient Vietnam—connect the stories to Vu’s bleak outlook on the history of a country he escaped, but which haunts his imagination.