Apocalypse Hotel by Ho An Thai

Apocalypse Hotel: A Novel by Ho An Thai (Texas Tech University Press, 144 pp., $24.95) is a handsome production, in hardcover, with great art on the dust jacket. A cover blurb by Susan Swartout informs the reader that this author is “considered the most important writer of Vietnam’s post-war generation.”

The author, Ho An Thai, was born in Hanoi in 1960. I assume he spent the war in Hanoi, although we are not told. Initially, I had an image of him as one of those teen-aged “cowboys” aboard a motor scooter who spent his time terrorizing pedestrians in the crowded streets of Saigon when I was there in 1966-67, but that is unlikely.

Ho Anh Thai

The introduction by Wayne Karlin informs us that Danang Publishing House published Apocalypse Hotel after all the other publishers in the country refused it. It has sold 50,000 copies and has had ten printings in Vietnam.

A summary of the book says it is “a cautionary tale about how wars meant to liberate can nevertheless present degrading aftereffects and unforeseen consequences.” Karlin’s introduction warns the prospective reader of “suicidal motor scooter races,” and the occasional goat strangling. Karlin is not kidding. There is even a grisly episode of cannibalism, which disturbed my enthusiasm for my hamburger patty lunch.

I found this short novel heavy going at first, and I wondered what Wayne Karlin’s role in adapting this little book involved since it is not spelled out.  Did he chop out stuff that slowed down the plot? I doubt it, but I wondered.  Karlin—a novelist, memoirist and essayist who served as U.S. Marine in the Vietnam War—is credited in this edition as one of the authors.

Wayne Karlin

One annoying anomaly of this book is that although American slang is frequently used (such as the word “grab-ass,”)  often effectively, the translator, Jonathan R. S. McIntyre, chose to give all measurements in French. For instance, the weight of dead people is described in kilos instead of pounds. This was odd and confusing to me as I never had a clue about the height or weight of anybody.

I admit that when the author describes a person as being like Tarzan, (he does this twice), I figured that the guy was big. I could have abandoned the text and got out paper and pencil and worked out the equivalent measurements in American terms, but I lacked that impulse.

This little book is described as being fast-paced, and I guess it is once it gets going; it does move right along. Is this book a fable or a fairly accurate portrait of life in 1990’s Vietnam, told in the form of a sordid mystery about the deaths of three young men who are nephews to the narrator, Uncle Dong? Maybe it is both.

As the book gained momentum and the bodies piled up, I often found myself comparing it to Crash, a classic novel of highway mayhem by the great J. G. Ballard.

Uncle Dong suspects the culprit responsible for the mysterious deaths of the three young men is a beautiful young woman, Mai Trung, who seems to possess unearthly powers.  “As she got older, Mai Trung understood that she carried within her a current of lethal human electrical power that reacted against people with evil intentions.”  She is, you could say, a sort of human electrical stingray.

Much of this book is devoted to Uncle Dong’s pursuit of this young woman, and lengthy philosophical ruminations about the nature of good and evil and what it all means.

There are many and frequent references to the American war in Vietnam and America’s efforts to bomb the country into the Stone Age by what are referred to as “American pirates of the sky.”  These passages are very poetical, but also terribly culture bound.

The point of view of this author is that Americans dropped a lot of bombs on Vietnam, which surprised me because I encounter exactly the opposite point of view in the literature of the war produced by Americans who seem to think we failed to drop enough bombs to do the job properly. For that reason alone—that is, getting a different angle on our war—this book was worth reading.

The author did not seem aware that the Vietnamese invited us to invade that lovely little country and to drop as many bombs as we wanted to drop, so as to defeat the spread of worldwide communism. I suspect that the state-controlled education that this author received failed to put forward that historical truism.

I recommend this novel to those who are looking for a powerfully different look at the effects of our war in Vietnam. I admit that I was relieved when I finished the book, and didn’t have to read any more about the smell of the dead bodies in the morgue and the like.

—David Willson