Book review: Ve Huong Mat Troi Lan, by Tran Hoai Thu.

Ve Huong Mat Troi Lan, by Tran Hoai Thu. Published by the Author. South Boundbrook, New Jersey, 1998. 274 pp. $14.00, paper.

Ve Huong Mat Troi Lan (In the Direction of the Setting Sun) is Tran Hoai Thu’s eighth collection of stories written between 1972 and 1998. Most stories in this and previous collections, especially Ra Bien Goi Tham (Calling out Softly to the Sea) (1995) and Ban Me Thuot Ngay Dau Ngay Cuoi (Ban Me Thuot: First Day and Last) (1997), are about the war the author has fought as a commando in the army of the former Republic of Vietnam.

In a recent interview Tran stated that his purpose in writing about the war is twofold: “to redeem the image of the South Vietnamese soldier that has been distorted by the American mass media and North Vietnamese propaganda” and “to pay my moral debt to my fallen comrades-at-arms.” To offset the stereotypical view of the South Vietnamese combat soldier as brutal, unruly, and cowardly, Tran portrays him as stoic, courageous, and compassionate. In “Dem Phục Kích Nguoi Thay Cu” (The Night My Former Teacher Was Ambushed), for example, the narrator captures a Vietcong but lets him go because the latter turns out to be his former teacher. In “Nhung Ke Tron Chay” (The Escapists) the protagonist’s impulse to execute a Vietcong suspect gives way to his decision to set him free because he cannot stand the sobbing entreaties of the man’s wife and mother. He acts thus also because he cannot tell a Vietcong from a harmless peasant.

Tran’s fiction deals with the war at its most brutal and absurd. It was a fratricidal war that had no front because the enemy could be your own father or brother who had just returned from the jungle and was being covered by your family. When the main character of “Nguoi Linh Tro Ve” (A Soldier’s Return) is about to call a raid on his native village he is warned by an elderly acquaintance of his that the raid might kill his brother, a Vietcong, who is still hiding in the area. The end of the story is ominous. “In panic the soldier seems to be awakening from a somnambulism. He is running as fast as he can to where his troops were. But it is too late. Behind him armored cars are rumbling across the vast rice field.”

The war also left Tran pondering existential questions about his generation and his country. Why did Vietnamese youth run headlong to such senseless killings? Should they, because of their direct involvement in the war, be held accountable for the devastation of the country and the disintegration of its moral values? Because most characters in Tran’s stories find the war mean, unreasonable, and nauseating, they reject the so-called “sacred responsibility to your country,” a euphemism the ruling class used to incite the young generation to fight. According to Tran, the ruling class was “guilty of fraud” because it stole the soldiers’ valor and, as the 1975 military debacle has shown, was the first to flee when the enemy arrived.

Tran’s second purpose is more compelling. “I write because I want to pay tribute to my buddies who are dead or left behind,” Tran declares. Like Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War-which Tran bitterly deplores because of its distorted representation of the South Vietnamese soldier-and like most American combat fiction about the Vietnam war, Tran’s writing is guilt-ridden. What has a lasting impact on Tran, as he says, is not the number of wounds he is carrying on his body (he was wounded three times in his relatively short military career), but the painful memories of his buddies who did not survive the war or could not make it to America. This is perhaps the reason why the stories in this and other collections are predominantly autobiographical

Writing about war experiences can be a risky business. The writer could easily bluster and brag about victory or be consumed with the sorrow and anger of defeat. Tran avoids both extremes. His stories are full of intense humanity and philosophic force. His heart goes out both to his men and to his wounded prisoners. He describes human triumphs as brittle and meaningless and refuses to gloat over the “catch” he and his troops every now and then are lucky to have. Ve Huong Mat Troi Lan, as suggested by its title, is a sad book because it is about betrayal, defeat, loss, and death. Yet it reinforces this important truth that Homer has taught us: War, whatever its purpose, is brutal and absurd and should not be fought in the first place.

Qui-Phiet Tran
Schreiner University


(Source: Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies  Vol, 14 No.1. 2000)