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THE DRAGON HUNT;\o7 By Tran Vu; Translated from the Vietnamese by Nina McPherson and Phan Huy Duong; (Hyperion: 146 pp., $21)\f7

May 16, 1999|MELVIN JULES BUKIET | Melvin Jules Bukiet is the author of "After" and, most recently, "Signs and Wonders." He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College

For Americans who came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Vietnam will always occupy a larger space within the geography of our minds than it does on a map. Our vision of this place is, however, inextricably bound up with the American experience there. Besides the soldiers, diplomats and journalists we knew (mostly through television) and either hated, respected or pitied, there was another group of people whom it was almost too easy to overlook and who shared an interest in our country's little "police action."

The Vietnamese are still something of a mystery to us, and Tran Vu, born in Vietnam in 1962, presents a resonant vision of his native land and its natives in exile in "The Dragon Hunt," elegantly translated by Nina McPherson and Phan Huy Duong. We hardly catch a mention of the Vietnam War until the last story in this slim book, yet the five stories in this collection are clearly inspired by the devastation that occurred during those long, harsh years of conflict. Only catastrophe on a national scale could engender such chaos. Like war itself, the sequence of stories begins with clarity and ends in havoc.

The collection's first and most accessible story, "The Coral Reef," chronicles a misbegotten journey from Vietnam to somewhere, anywhere. After hundreds of people give their valuables to the authorities, they are crammed into the hold of a sea-bound vessel that ends up shipwrecked on a reef in the middle of the ocean, just as the survivors are later cast ashore in an unfamiliar nation. In its brutality and the straightforward manner of its prose, "The Coral Reef" couldn't help but remind this reader of Hemingway, but the rest of the stories in this book grow increasingly strange, as if the physical journey out of Vietnam was only a prelude to the bizarre psychic journey to come.

In the second story, "Gunboat on the Yangtze," a blind and grotesquely disfigured young man and his older sister fall into incest, partially because no one else will have him--children shriek at the sight of his face--and because his soul has been equally disfigured. In the third story, "The Back Streets of Hoi An," Loan, a married woman, has an affair with a man named Lu under the spying eyes of their grossly goitered landlady. Between the couple's "twisted" and "reckless" liaisons, Lu further seduces Loan with tales of "the carnage of history." "All of Lu's stories ended in blood," a fitting conclusion because the street they live on is "like a corpse someone had laid out but forgotten to bury." Even the description of a mundane urban scene evokes anarchy and atrocity.

Vu's last two stories move more self-consciously into the realm of art and simultaneously become more dense, impacted and poetic in their language. "Nha Nam" involves a writer who, like Vu, has "a way of writing each sentence as if he were hacking at the trunk of a banana tree with a machete, making the sap spurt out of it." And the final, title story builds to an ominous semi-surreal crescendo. The atmosphere of "The Dragon Hunt, set on a fabulous estate where people eat the meat of mythical creatures, swirls and spirals so exotically that it's hard to tell what is a dream and what is reality, or if we're caught in a "Turkish tea"-induced hallucination as the multiple narratives all fuse into a phantasmagoric mix of legend and history.

Throughout the collection, Vu probes the multiple differences that broke down the once-cohesive unity of the Vietnamese people. Besides the division of the country that led to the war, there's a chasm between the generation that experienced the events themselves and that which lives only in the aftermath, as well as a difference between those people who got away and those who remained. Is it the homeland of the body or the homeland of the heart and mind that is authentic? Vu makes the point that there may be no essential difference worth noticing. The imagination retroactively creates the reality, and the awful historical reality must affect, or infect, the imagination.

What's most remarkable about "The Dragon Hunt" is that although its plots and characters grow deliberately more deformed as they move along, they do so through rigorously consistent imagery. This is best illustrated with Vu's use of the word "drown." Used literally in "The Coral Reef," the word becomes a metaphor when the incestuous siblings of "Gunboat on the Yangtze" are "drowned in shame." This literally recalls the first story and anticipates the last in which a character who falls into (as in "inside of") a painter's canvas is described as "drowning under a thick rush of paint." And just as Vu's literary extravagance in the final stories may start to elude readers, we are brought up sharp with blunt statements like "People just left. . . . We only knew that we had to go" or, more philosophically, "it's not that my people have lost all feeling. But they've seen too much. Too much death. Dreams are their only hope, the only thing left of lasting value."

The war in Vietnam, like all wars, didn't end with armistice. The effects linger and fester and occasionally--as in the case of "The Dragon Hunt"--produce literature. Depending on one's level of cynicism, this is either a small price to pay for the horrors of history or small recompense.

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