Metaphors for suffering

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 August, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 August, 1999, 12:00am

More than 20 years after Tran Vu fled Vietnam, this collection of five short stories paints a disturbing picture of the lingering legacy of war. Through vivid imagery, real and imagined, he gives a haunting portrayal of the pitifully fine line between life and death, slaughter and survival.

In The Coral Reef, a stomach-churning tale of escape by sea in a squalid, overloaded fishing vessel turns deadly when the boat is wrecked on a reef. The survivors battle for survival against the elements, in shark-infested waters, their flesh shredded by coral, their bodies scorched by the sun.

'I wrote this story the way I lived it, without knowing what would happen to me,' the author explains in a note; Tran Vu was among the floods of Vietnamese boat people.

Aged 16, he was shipwrecked and, wearing a life-jacket, floated in the water for 10 days before being rescued and taken to a refugee camp in the Philippines. He came to France in 1979, where he works as a computer analyst.

His tales explore a dark, tortured side to the refugee experience, and he delves into the depths of human despair in a powerful tale of incest, Gunboat On The Yangtze. The blind, hideously disfigured Toan hides his face from the world in a Paris apartment. He becomes reliant on his elder sister, unable to search elsewhere for the affection and love he craves. Finally she can no longer bear his suffering. In an intensely poignant moment she acquiesces to his demands: 'He asks me why I feel regret, why I resist him. And I tell him that I won't anymore, that I was raped at sea, that I've nothing left to protect anymore.' Their happiness is complete, their love tender and magical, but before long Toan wants more. When Elder Sister refuses to give him a child, she becomes a victim once again as Toan's tortured self resurfaces, capable of brutal, sickening cruelty.

The symbolism is vivid yet simple: a scarf becomes a cobra, the sound of Toan's cello is like the howl of an animal. Later stories employ a more complex imagery, and the narratives become more challenging - though no less disturbing - as Tran Vu explores the history of his native land in The Back Streets of Hoi An and experiments with contemporary literature and 15th century poetry in Nha Nam.

In the title work, the author later explains, the key is a legend of a dragon from which all Vietnamese are said to be descended. In The Dragon Hunt exiles meet at a mansion in Europe to feast on the meat of dragons, gorging themselves sick on mounds of bloody flesh, entrails, brains. The hunting and slaying of the dragons becomes a metaphor for the war, and the Vietnamese people's loss of beliefs and sense of direction.

These richly layered, powerful stories make it impossible to forget that while physically the landscape and wounds of those involved in the war may have healed, in the minds of survivors the scars can never be erased. Tran Vu notes that many veterans he has encountered remain locked up in a surreal lost world, still fighting their war, unable to escape the mental torment.

Although too young to have been involved in the fighting himself, he is aware of the traumatic effects: 'In my stories people undergo terrible transformations, from being victims, abandoned, to being rapists, torturers of others. This is what can happen to us in war, I have noticed.' The dragon Hunt: Five stories by Tran Wu, translated by Nina McPherson and Phan Huy Duong Hyperion $210


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Metaphors for suffering

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