It’s after the war in Tran Vu’s short stories. The shooting may have stopped, but there’s no peace, no healing. All that’s left is the postwar wreckage in people’s souls and the continuing carnage only the deeply wounded can inflict.
It was “The Coral Reef,” an art brut tour de force published in Granta in 1995, that introduced the 33-year-old Vu, who had been living in Paris as a refugee since he was 17, to English-speaking readers. And “The Dragon Hunt,” Vu’s first collection in English, begins with this autobiographical account of how the teenage author and a boatload of refugees fleeing postwar Vietnam were shipwrecked on a reef for 12 days. Although the boat people’s escape is ripped from newspaper headlines, Vu’s focus on the most repellant details of suffering — people in the hold wallowing in shit and vomit, mouths blistered by the sun, feet shredded by coral during the futile efforts to free the boat, starving refugees stealing food from one another, mutineers on a sinking raft stalked by sharks, deaths from sheer despair — is what makes this story, like the rest of the collection, so original (and so grueling to read).
“The Coral Reef” reads more like James Ellroy or Georges Bataille than like Hemingway or Michael Herr. Vu centers in not on the nobility, redemption or “meaning” of suffering but its degradation — something that has been largely taboo in the humanistic tradition of war writing. The story’s form mimics the emptiness of this suffering: A sketchy journal that makes no attempt to seem like a complete or even a contemporary record, it just stops when the boat rights itself on a high tide and moves off, as if the 12 days of horror and futility had never happened.
The rest of the collection is just as hermetic and tortured. A blinded burn victim who rapes his sister (replicating her earlier rape by pirates who preyed on boat people) says, “It’s only when we’re in pain that we take time to think.” An S&M triangle mimics the sadistic partner’s obsessive, bloody accounts of Vietnamese history. A man force-feeds his woman live fish. An unfaithful wife laps up her lover’s vomit like an animal. It’s as if history’s brutality is literally written on their bodies
But if Vu’s vision in these stories is narrow, the title story explodes it. Part allegory, part hallucination, part pornographic fantasy, “The Dragon Hunt” lurches in and out of control: hilarious exaggerations, over-the-top descriptions of ejaculations (“the sperm still wiggling on her face”), nipples as metaphors over and over, false moments galore but also lardings of gorgeous writing — as when a sip of anisette, “like a green snake, runs down his throat, slips under his Adam’s apple and wriggles before disappearing into his gut … I feel an anise flower unfurl and bloom in the soles of my feet.”
According to Vietnamese legend, the country was conceived by a dragon (a Sino-Vietnamese symbol of vitality) and a fairy. In “The Dragon Hunt,” Vietnamese veterans who fought on opposing sides unleash an arsenal from their Mercedes 500 SEL at a troop of baby dragons and then debauch on the dragon meat. Phoenix hearts are consumed with gallons of anisette. Blood gushes and skulls crack on every page. The narrator’s voice spins in and out of hallucinations, which seem as real as what may or may not actually be happening. And throughout, the storyteller is stalked by brutal metaphors of the sea and its crossings, “the odd thrill of chasing death … float[ing] back staggering across the ocean.” The coral reef has spawned writing, if not meaning.