Although cursed by an unattractive cover and little publicity, Exit Visit is worth buying. It is one of the most assured and satisfying Australian novels to appear for some years.

    Exit Visa is an epic work of fiction that tells most Australians what they don't know about the Vietnam War, the emigration of the 'boat people', and the difficulties that South-East Asian people face in Australia today. Clark analyses an entire era of world history. He shows how people are formed or malformed by their circumstances. The two main influences in the real world are hunger and thirst. Hounded by disaster, some people become greedy, cruel or even berserk, while others become almost superhumanly altruistic. Ideologies crumble under such pressures or become weapons in the hands of individuals, remarkable people, who can find redemption if allowed to do so.

    Exit Visa is written in the unadorned cryptic style of the thriller, but maintains a high level of complexity. It is told in a series of first-person narratives. Six Vietnamese people and one Australian sound as if they are talking very rapidly into a tape-recorder while in imminent danger of losing their lives. This device works, as throughout the novel most of the characters usually are in imminent danger of losing their lives.

     Through their experiences the reader lives through the Vietnam War and the beginnings of the Communist government in South Vietnam, a perilous boat expedition from Vietnam to Australia in 1978, and a disrupted existence in Brisbane during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

    The most interesting character is Phong Van Giang. At First he seems a pallid character. After he joins the Khmer Rouge in Kampuchea he discovers in himself a thirst for random violence. Increasingly berserk, he lurches into Vietnam, becomes a pirate who preys on the boat people, and turns up as it knife-wielding rapist in Brisbane at the end of the novel. The author convincingly presents each stage of Phong Van Giang's personality disintegration.

    I don't know who "Marcus Clark" is. Is this a pseudonym for a Vietnamese immigrant? The husband of a boat person? Or just a brilliant researcher? I trust he has a long and successful career as a novelist.

Bruce Gillespie



EXIT VISA, by Marcus Clark  
  (Published by Heinemann)


    FOR 25 years, the tragedy of Indochina has seldom been off our television screens, or the front pages of our newspapers.
    The war, the boat people, Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge - all have become embedded in the consciousness of the 20th century as surely as have both previous world wars.

    War seems to spawn an extraordinary creative response,  judging by the number of novels to come out of the major conflicts of this century. Certainly Vietnam is no exception - though quantity outscores quality in the growing volume of fiction published on the war.
    This literature deals overwhelmingly with the American experience in Vietnam. Little effort has been made to see the Vietnamese side, which usually comes across as flat and one dimensional.  Perhaps this is to be expected: few Americans have shown much understanding of the people they were fighting, or fighting for, either during or after the war.
    When we turn to the post-war tragedy in both Vietnam and Cambodia, the most evocative writing has come from the victims themselves, in the form of memoirs of suffering and escape. Very  few attempts have been made to portray the refugee experience through  fiction. Exit Visa does just that.

    This novel, by Brisbane writer Marcus Clark, traces the lives of six Vietnamese;  from the chaotic collapse of South Vietnam in March and April 1975, through their escape by boat and to their dramatic confrontation after resettlement in Australia - a climax that goes back, inevitably, to their previous lives in Vietnam.
    The heroine is a young school teacher from Hue, caught up in the retreat from Da Nang, who finds herself penniless and alone at the fall of Saigon. There she is taken advantage of by a corrupt and venial South Vietnamese police officer and befriended by a wise old Chinese jeweller who pays for both of them to leave Vietnam by boat.
    Three other people manage, by one means or another, to find places on the same unseaworthy vessel.

    One is a North Vietnamese Army volunteer disillusioned by the way communism is being implemented in the south. Another is the young widow he rescues and helps escape from the New Economic Zone - where she bad been sent and where he was a reluctant guard.The third additional passenger is a psychopathic Khmer Rouge killer, half-Cambodian and half-Vietnamese, who has had to flee Cambodia after killing a communist cadre.

    A seventh character enters the picture towards the end of the novel, a middle-aged Australian by the name of Neville  "Nifty" Horton.

    The story is told in the words of these seven people, each in the first person, in chapters specifying who is speaking and where and when the action takes place. As a device, this works quite well as we see events from very different, and at the same time very personal, viewpoints.
    The six Vietnamese provide the author with an opportunity to portray the aftermath of war in Vietnam in all its horror -- the fear, brutality, suspicion, starvation and desperation of those struggling for survival.

    The boat they escape on is boarded by pirates - men are killed and women and girls raped. Refugee camps in Malaysia are overcrowded and unsanitary. Even life in Australia is a harsh struggle against racism and intolerance.

    All this is well and graphically told Clark wants to expose the appalling  experiences that so many of our most recent immigrants have endured, and he pulls no punches in doing so.

    Complexities of character may not be well developed in Exit Visa, but nonetheless it is well worth reading for it provides an authentic insight into what so many Vietnamese have gone through in coming to Australia.

    For this they deserve the sort of sympathy and understanding that Marcus Clark has so deeply and genuinely expressed in writing this novel.


  Reviewed by Kate Veitch,  Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Dec 1989

... They are the people whose stories are told in Exit Visa, a first novel from a new, Australian writer, Marcus Clark. It begins in 1975, as the North Vietnamese Army is sweeping down and into Saigon. Americans have gone. This book, unlike any other I've read or heard of, is told from the viewpoint of the Vietnamese, six very different men and women, each desperate to leave the country. No Caucasian even appears until the last part of it, set in Brisbane.

    This book, unlike  any other I've read or heard of, is told from the viewpoint of the Vietnamese."

    Exit Visa moves forward in chunks of first-person narrative, beginning with the terrible journey of Trin, a young schoolteacher, from Hue to Saigon, in the course of which she loses every member of her family. If the book has a "goodie" I guess it's Trin: she is stalwart and clever, and you want desperately for things to go well for her. Be warned, though: two of the male characters are totally evil, obsessed with power, rape and killing, and their sections of the novel detail their corrupt activities in a detail which, though appropriate to character, is nevertheless sickening.

    The book is in part a thriller as these two baddies circle closer and closer to the unknowing Trin. It had me reading till 3 am, heart in mouth, to see if evil would triumph yet again. A second reading at a more restrained pace showed up certain flaws: the narrative gets clunky sometimes, the dialogue rather wooden, and there are minor inconsistencies which a more thorough editing job would have eliminated. But overall, I'm very impressed by Exit Visa. It's a powerful story told in good honest prose, deeply empathetic, a genuine original. It leads me to wish that if in the future we must have yet more books about the Vietnamese war, let some of them at least come from the pens of the Vietnamese themselves. I think we could learn a lot from them about coming to terms with loss, and not just of innocence.