Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage even though he had never panicked on a battlefield, and now Victor Kolpacoff has written The Prisoners of Quai Dong, a brilliant novel about the interrogation of a Viet Cong suspect, even though he has never set foot on Vietnamese soil. This fall hundreds of creative-writing teachers will be telling their students to write about “things you know from your own experience.”
Though not the masterpiece that Crane’s novel is, The Prisoners of Quai Dong satisfies the primary requirements of fiction, particularly those at which it has become fashionable to sneer. It is completely absorbing; it focuses on a subject of large contemporary interest; it is compactly formed; and it is written with a verbal discipline that, in this moment of cultural yawp, seems remarkable.
The novel falls within a sub-genre that American writers have traditionally handled well: the short fiction, dramatic and even violent, in which a few men are brought to a test of physical and/or moral strength and some intimation of significance is supposed to linger after the last bitter or ironic sentence. Such fiction has obvious similarities to the kind of movie Hollywood does best: the zeroing-in upon a conflict in which the causes, moral or otherwise, are swept aside by the sheer demands of survival. The value of such fiction—and films—lies in their strength of narrative, their leanness of form, and their tacit discounting of the resolution to which they seem to yield themselves. The weakness of such fiction—and films—lies in a readiness to minimize reflection, so that the consciousness of the characters remains undeveloped and the consciousness of the author unexpressed. Often the result is a work that resembles allegory, but without the moral clarity and assurance one expects from allegory.
The story is set in Quai Dong, an out-of-the-way spot without military significance but steadily harassed by guerrillas. Quai Dong also serves as a stockade for American military prisoners, one of those ghastly places in which the national talent for brutality comes to rich expression. Here, in the early pages, we encounter the central figure, Krueger, a former officer who has been busted for refusing to lead an advance. Shoveling sand from sun-up to sun-down and learning the great lesson of army life (“keep your head down”), Krueger is a man of intelligence but neither a rebel nor an intellectual—a fact that establishes both his value as the book’s eye and his limitations as its mind.
Krueger is suddenly called away. Because he knows a few words of Vietnamese, he is ordered to join the interrogation of a Vietnamese boy suspected of being a guerrilla courier. His task will be to check on Nguyen, the ARVN sergeant assigned to break the suspect, and then perhaps to take over the interrogation. For Krueger the assignment brings an immediate moral crisis: he is prepared to do his duty, he has no ideological objection to the war, he is tempted by the offer of restored rank if he does the job well, but he is sickened by what he knows must now happen.
THE CORE OF THE NOVEL, building up to wave after wave of tension, consists of the interrogation and then the torture that follows the prisoner’s refusal to talk. Nguyen poses a group of ritualized answers. Behind this method there is the assumption that the prisoner, worn down by maddening repetition, will be tempted to deviate from the established pattern and then be trapped into the truth. But it is a method that takes time and the Americans, being Americans, are impatient. The officer in charge, Lieutenant Buckley, oscillates between letting Nguyen have his way and unleashing his own gorilla-like sergeant who would simply use his fists. As the hours slip by, Nguyen, in part to satisfy the demands of the Americans and in part to save the boy, begins to slice his skin with a knife, skillfully inflicting wounds on the groin, stomach, and back which are calculated to speed confession but not lead to death. Again the Americans cannot wait; the prisoner is finally butchered; and Krueger, struggling to maintain his moral sanity without refusing orders point-blank, is gradually implicated in the horror. At the end, he is once more a lieutenant.
Mr. Kolpacoff arranges his characters in a pattern of guilt and fright which reminds one a little of Crane’s technique in “The Blue Hotel.” One envisions a harsh camera swooping down upon the hut in which the action occurs and shifting from figure to figure as the overwrought Buckley chains them all into a common responsibility. The characterization, while mostly external, is admirably lucid. Buckley, the brutal opportunist who speaks for “the system,” is the least interesting figure, apparently taken from Mailer and Styron. But the others are finely demarcated, and Nguyen is a triumph. At no point does this “loyal” Vietnamese express his true feelings, yet gradually, through the dynamics of the action, we gain a strong sense of what they are. He shares the political goals of the Americans (his village, he announces, has been destroyed by the Viet Cong) but feels a growing admiration for the bravery of the prisoner who is, after all, a countryman, “one of us.” In the end, like everyone else, he does what he is told: wars raise the most extreme moral problems, armies allow the least moral freedom.
The Prisoners of Quai Dong is conceived without any blatant propagandistic intent: there are no sentimentalities about “the heroic resistance” or that unanalyzed “revolution” which disaffected Americans like to invoke these days. Precisely because of this restraint, the impact of the book seems all the greater, both as an indictment of the American role in Vietnam and as a dramatization of the helplessness of men under the weight of absolute power. For it is torture that is at stake here, not merely its contingent political uses; and it is also the structure of power as an agency making men feel that because moral sentiments seem irrelevant human beings are insignificant. What all the American characters recognize is that they have almost no freedom to act upon their moral impulses, once you discount the possibility of martyrdom which, for them, is not a significant choice; and it is this recognition which makes for both the moral seriousness and the dramatic constrictedness of the book.
Mr. Kolpacoff’s talents as a narrator are highly impressive. His sense of how to pace a scene and whip it toward climax, his gift for positioning the characters into a chain of suspicion and fear, his resolute coolness in handling materials that are inherently dreadful—all this is admirable. Yet the novel does not finally emerge as the masterpiece it promises to become, mostly because Mr. Kolpacoff, like many other American writers, is not able to match his narrative powers with sustaining reflection. Because his theme is the elimination of freedom, he cannot really count on the action to carry his meaning in the way it might have done had he created a milieu that allowed the characters a larger spectrum of choice.
IN ANY CASE, whenever he is forced to approach human consciousness in its own right—and mostly he keeps away from it—Mr. Kolpacoff becomes unsure of himself, and his prose, usually so forceful and lucid, becomes hesitant. As a novelist he does not yet command a voice quite his own; the coldly exact style upon which he relies does not leave a sufficient resonance or communicate a distinctive personal savor. Still it is a remarkable performance.
The Taste of Power is a novel written by a Czech writer who had for years been a leading member of the Czech Communist Party but who was expelled from the party and stripped of Czech nationality this summer because he had sided with Israel in the Middle Eastern war and had denounced the pro-Arab stand of the Prague government. Excerpts from his novel began to appear in the Prague literary monthly Planem, but these were suddenly interrupted and thus far the book has not been published in Czechoslovakia itself. As a novel, it does not strike me as very interesting: the situation is trite, the incidents often perfunctory, and the writing repetitious. Once again we encounter the ruthless party leader who in his youth was a flaming partisan, bold and brave, but in power became coarse and corrupted. Perhaps because I have read most of the books in this genre, I found myself able to foretell the development of the story almost to the last detail.
But what is remarkable is the outspokenness with which Mnacko attacks not merely incidental abuses of the Communist dictatorship but the whole society. The world that emerges from his pages is not merely brutal, it is incredibly primitive in its intellectual life and shabby in its moral life. Mnacko is quoted as saying: “All of the incidents in the book are true. We thought we could handle power better than the people we took it from, but we were mistaken. I do not condemn one man alone. I condemn the system that produced this man. My book is an argument against the bankruptcy of our system.”
Reading these raw pages one learns exactly what it is “we” refused to grasp: that while absolute power may not corrupt absolutely, it is absolutely certain to corrupt. Not exactly a novel idea; and the real question is why the “vanguard,” conceiving of power as an unshaded totality, should have refused to see it in time.
October 12, 1967