Flawed saviour sucked into Saigon’s murky sex trade

The Dark­est Lit­tle Room

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Emily Maguire

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

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