Behind the Red Mist

Ho Anh Thai

translated from the Vietnamese by Nguyen Qui Duc
Curbstone Press 1998
A book review by Danny Yee © 2014
In the title novella "Behind the Red Mist", which takes up half the book, seventeen-year-old Tan travels back in time to 1967, three years before his birth, and meets his father, mother and grandmother. The wartime setting, with regular bombing by the Americans, unreliable news from the front, and the militarisation of society, is mostly just background, and the time-travel set up is not dwelt on. The heart of the novella is an account of Tan's father and mother's coming together despite her mother's opposition, and also of Tan's own relationship with a young woman.

Though Ho Anh Thai was born a decade earlier, in 1960, this reflects something of his own experience, growing up in the aftermath of a war that was central to his parents' lives. Also exploring that generational divide is "Fragment of a Man", in which the narrator's mother fails to come to terms with her husband's death as a pilot. In "The Chase" some young men attempting to be fashionable are hunted down and humiliated by enforcers of social conformity. And there are two fantastic stories: in "The Goat Meat Special" the protagonist's boss is transformed into a goat after watching a magically pornographic television, while in "The Man Who Believed in Fairy Tales" the narrator wakes up to find he has been transformed into an American.

Five of the stories are set in India, where Ho Anh Thai studied and worked. In "The Indian" a man who carries his mother's bones everywhere has an affair with a British woman, while "The Barter" is about a German student who goes native. In "The Man Who Stood on One Leg" an ascetic takes on modernity, "A Sigh Through the Laburnums" is a not terribly subtle but haunting depiction of the life of a destitute woman, and "Leaving the Valley" explores the broad religious and social setting.

There's nothing too complicated about Ho Anh Thai's style, at least in this translation, or ideas, which extend to gentle satire, a bit of surrealism and a sharp eye for character and contingency, but neither is there any trace of moralising or didacticism or plodding. Behind the Red Mist is an engaging collection which offers different perspectives on both Vietnam and India.

March 2014

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%T Behind the Red Mist
%A Ho Anh Thai
%M Vietnamese
%F Duc, Nguyen Qui
%I Curbstone Press
%D 1998
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9781880684542
%P 226pp