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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Apocalypse Hotel

Ho Anh Thai

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To purchase Apocalypse Hotel

Title: Apocalypse Hotel
Author: Ho Anh Thai
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 129 pages
Original in: Vietnamese
Availability: Apocalypse Hotel - US
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  • Vietnamese title: Cõi người rung chuông tận thế
  • Translated by Jonathan R.S. McIntyre
  • Adapted (and, yes, I cringe at the thought of what that might have involved) and with an Introduction by Wayne Karlin

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Our Assessment:

B : intriguing look at fast times in 1990s Viet Nam, but comes with a supernatural cop-out

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Apocalypse Hotel offers an interesting look at fast-paced, fast-changing Viet Nam in the heady 1990s. It is narrated by Tạ Dương Đông. He is in his mid-thirties, and he's been: "both a ship's captain and a bookworm"; he also paints. While he eventually gets around to describing his time on the high seas, the book begins with him and some buddies from the Apocalypse Hotel -- where he has a few rooms ('The Captain's Studio', one of the hotel's attractions) -- going to the beach to have a good time
       Among the friends is Cốc -- whose name is actually Công, but who likes to be known as Cốc, mispronounced so that it sounds like the English word:

which refers to a male chicken and also that thing that wriggles between a guy's legs. Both meanings suited Cốc just fine.
       A small-time celebrity -- he'd been in some movies, he sang -- he was one of the hotel-attractions, too, but wasn't above playing receptionist or bellboy at the hotel either, if the need arose. Cốc is also a very aggressive ladies' man, and when he sets his sights on someone he makes sure she submits. At the beach he sets his sights on a woman named Mai Trừng, and goes after her in the water. The friends encircle her, but Tạ Dương Đông backs off; Cốc goes in for the kill -- well, for "her drawers" -- but by the time they get him back to shore he's in his "death convulsions", and then he's dead.
       The friends blame the mysterious and elusive Mai Trừng, and the other two are determined to avenge Cốc's death. It doesn't quite work out that way: since childhood Mai Trừng has been a special sort of person. As she eventually admits to Tạ Dương Đông:
Whenever anyone is planning to do anything bad to me, that person immediately meets an accident. Many times they are very dangerous accidents.
       The aggressive, wild young men, the up-and-comers in this Viet Nam, get way too cocky in thinking they can get and have their way; Mai Trừng sees to their comeuppance. Tạ Dương Đông is a bit older than the others -- one of the men is his nephew, twelve years younger than him (and for whom Tạ Dương Đông was a father figure) -- and a bit more world-weary and experienced, and though also curious about Mai Trừng is also much more cautious in approaching her.
       Caution is certainly not something the others are very interested in, and it's clear that Tạ Dương Đông lives at the fringes of this fast new generation, not in its epicenter. As he notes:
From one narrow street to another, it was the age of speed. When people ate, they ate instant food. When they studied or worked, they took shortcuts. For fun and entertainment, people would take the "express train." Even love was swift, protected by individual freedom, OK invincible Champion condoms, and Choice birth control pills.
       Only after painting a picture of this generation in the present-day does Tạ Dương Đông describe his own background more closely, as well as that of Mai Trừng, born at the height of the Viet Nam war. She lost both her parents, but her father left her with her name and dying promise: "she'll punish the wicked". Peacetime should have done away with any need for her do so -- "What wicked people were there left for her to punish ?" -- but, of course, wickedness was not eradicated and new times just brought different opportunities. Idealism only lasted for so long.
       Apocalypse Hotel is a vivid and harsh portrait of these aggressive new times and some pretty outrageous activities. The narrator was once in control -- captain of a large merchant vessel ! sailing the high seas ! married, and with a child (though not for long) -- but ran aground. He's thirty-five when the book ends, but feeling decidedly philosophical -- he's: "The age when the Buddha reached enlightenment", he notes -- and at least seems open to learning lessons that his nephew and friends couldn't.
       Apocalypse Hotel is engrossing -- fast-paced, action-packed, with some interesting characters and observations about how Vietnamese society changed from the early 1970s through the 1990s (beginning with what second language to learn -- abruptly changing from Russian to English). The supernatural hokum, however, complicates the picture and the message, with fortune-telling validated and fate presented as often beyond human control (and hence personal responsibility still minimized: sure, these guys could have avoided their fates if they had acted decently ... but they're not given much opportunity to learn that lesson).
       It's a rough and tumble narrative -- pulling one along, but also occasionally frustrating in just how rough the presentation is. (It's unclear how much this has to do with Wayne Karlin's 'adaptation' of the material, and how much with Ho's original.) Compelling, in its own way, and fairly original, it's a bit too much of a mess, too. But certainly an intriguing read, and revealing about a time and place about which very little is available in English.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 September 2012

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Apocalypse Hotel: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Vietnamese author Hồ Anh Thái was born in 1960.

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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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