Flawed saviour sucked into Saigon’s murky sex trade
The Darkest Little Room
By Patrick Holland Transit Lounge, 267pp, 29.95
FROM page one of Patrick Holland’s The Darkest Little Room, when the narrator, Joseph, sits at a Saigon street cafe with a French aid mission doctor and watches passing ao dai - clad women while thinking ahead to an evening assignation with an offduty cop, we know we are in deep, dark Greeneland. It’s all here: the seedy, exotic locales and corrupt, cultured, opium-smoking men; the beautiful but fundamentally broken women; the tense, terse, elegant prose; and, of course, the classic Greene anti-hero, a man out of place and time, tortured by conscience and a Catholic preoccupation with guilt and sin.
‘‘ The nights I have spent with prostitutes have been some of the saddest nights of my life,’’ Joseph reveals near the beginning of the book. He goes on to explain that the sadness comes when the sex is done and he must see the ‘‘ deep unfeeling blankness’’ on the face of the ‘‘ pretty young prostitute’’. It’s a telling moment; Joseph is terribly sentimental about sex work, and so unable to see the women who do it as anything other than more or less useful accomplices in his project to redeem himself via loving, and thereby saving, a fallen woman.
The woman he most wants to save via his love is Thuy, a teenager from northern Vietnam with whom he fell in love in a period of 24 hours and then left, with the promise to return in six months. By then the girl was long gone, possibly sold into the sex industry by her poverty-stricken family, and so Joseph is doomed to mooch about Saigon, freelance reporting and occasionally blackmailing minor Communist Party officials while searching the bars and bridges for his lost love.
When a German stranger approaches Joseph in a coffee shop and tells him about seeing a woman matching Thuy’s description who had been flogged ‘‘ like Christ on the scourging block before the Crucifixion’’, Joseph is driven