Of Wars and Memory
When Nguyễn Thanh Việt’s debut novel, The Sympathizer, was published in 2015, it immediately raised the brows of numerous literary pundits. It received quite a warm response from seasoned readers, reviewers and award-giving bodies alike. It achieved its highest accolade when it was named the winner of the 2016 Pulitzer for Fiction. It has quite the resume, especially for a debut novel.
Unfortunately, I have never heard of it until I encountered a copy of the book on one of my excursions to a local bookstore. The book’s being a Pulitzer Prize winner was the first thing that caught my attention. Out of curiosity, I purchased the book and made it part of my 2018 Reading List. To make the event more special, I made The Sympathizer part of my April 2018 Asian Literature month.
Narrated by an anonymous fictional character, The Sympathizer revolves around the Vietnamese War and the fall of the South Vietnamese government in 1975. It also alluded to the events subsequent to the conclusion of the war when the narrator and his countrymen fled in exile to Los Angeles. This unnamed narrator is tagged as a sympathizer because of his political stance, hence, the book’s title. The story follows the narrator as he tries to establish himself as an immigrant in the United States while staying connected with his communist associates in Vietnam.
“Our country itself was cursed, bastardized, partitioned into north and south, and if it could be said of us that we chose division and death in our uncivil war, that was also only partially true. We had not chosen to be debased by the French, to be divided by them into an unholy trinity of north, center, and south, and to be turned over to the great powers of capitalism and communism for a further bisection, then given roles as the clashing armies of a Cold War chess match played in air-conditioned rooms by white men wearing suits and lies.”~ Nguyễn Thanh Việt, The Sympathizer
The narrator’s anonymity was one of the things that characterized Nguyen’s narrative. His identity was never revealed. To the reader’s imagination, he just remained as the Sympathizer, a former Vietnamese captain. The narrative’s smooth flow makes the reader forget about the narrator’s enigmatic identity. Nguyen did an outstanding job in developing his primary character as his mysterious character and voice resonated all throughout the story. The book was all about him, his country, its people, and both their histories.
The narrator’s identity, both as a mole and as an immigrant, is a centrifugal point in the novel. Aside from the narrator’s anonymity, what stands out in him is his duality which at times presents glaring contrasts in his nature and behavior. His actions are often divided by what he believes in and his perception of how he should act, especially when the Vietnamese general he was working with began getting suspicious of espionage within his team of former Vietnamese soldiers.
Admittedly, this book is one of the very few books I’ve read dealing with the Vietnam War. The very few books I’ve read discussed the war in the perspective of the Americans. This Americanization of the Vietnam War was extensively dealt with in The Sympathizer. However, Nguyen takes it a step forward as he simultaneously portrayed how the war is viewed by both the Vietnamese people and by the Americans. Nguyen’s intimate and detailed approach in conveying the story was both enlightening and informative.
“Movies were America’s way of softening up the rest of the world, Hollywood relentlessly assaulting the mental defenses of audiences with the hit, the smash, the spectacle, the blockbuster, and, yes, even the box office bomb. It mattered not what story these audiences watched. The point was that it was the American story they watched and loved, up until the day that they themselves might be bombed by the planes they had seen in American movies.”~ Nguyễn Thanh Việt, The Sympathizer
The book did throw a shade on this Americanization of the Vietnam War. There was one time when the narrator was hired as a consultant for a movie about the Vietnam War. The movie’s glaring contrasts to actual events brought it to the attention of the narrator who eventually volunteered to give a touch of authenticity to the movie. Due to the differences in their understanding of the events, the narrator and the movie director had numerous rifts and misunderstandings.
The Sympathizer did well in utilizing different historical contexts in enriching the story. Many a times, authors tend to juxtapose historical events into their story rather than having the story revolve around these historical events. As a whole, Nguyen did a remarkable job in his depiction of both the Vietnamese’s American exile and of the Vietnam War. His research and detailed narrative are nothing short of remarkable.
Outside of war, the novel also dealt with a variety of other subjects which include politics and the proverbial American dream. It also dealt with espionage and betrayal and to some extent, nationalism, patriotism, and loyalty. But it is the tenterhook surrounding the narrator’s identity which makes one want to pursue reading the book. The tone and the pace adopted by Nguyen in the story are both appropriate. I expected a more livid tone because of the sensitive subject. In the stead of an irate tone, the narrator had a more patient and more understanding voice.
This plethora of subjects would have not worked had it not been for Nguyen’s engaging and witty writing style. Using an anonymous narrator as the primary character worked in favor of the story because it provided a veil of an enigma to its overall texture. The narrator’s duality and contrasts steered the story forward. Nguyen’s voice and the narrator’s voice merged in a cohesive and free-flowing narrative that is both powerful and poignant, and at times somber.
“The most important thing to understand is that while we courted, Americans dated, a pragmatic custom whereby a male and a female set a mutually agreeable time to meet, as if to negotiate a potentially profitable business venture. Americans understood dating to be about investments and gains, short or long term , but we saw romance and courtship as being about losses. After all, the only worthwhile courtship involved persuading a woman who could not be persuaded, not a woman already predisposed to examine her calendar for her availability.”~ Nguyễn Thanh Việt, The Sympathizer
The book, however, can be a very challenging read. The removal of basic punctuation marks made it difficult to distinguish conversations. This also resulted in endless sentences and seemingly long paragraphs which at some points could be very draining. Some details were also placed whimsically making the story unnecessarily longer. But I guess, all writers are in one way or another guilty of this.
As a whole, The Sympathizer is a relevant novel that offers an insight into the correlation between war and immigration. Whereas the events took place in the 1970s, the story’s relevance extends to the current state of events, especially with the spate of migration from Syria due to ISIS attacks. It also gave an intimate peek into the Vietnam War. The story’s highest point is Nguyen’s not blaming the war on anyone. In an essay about the book, Nguyen was quoted as saying “we aren’t just victims but victimizers as well.” For a debut novel, Nguyễn Thanh Việt did a remarkable job.
Recommended for readers who are interested in the Vietnam War, those who are interested in Asian literature, those who are into historical fiction, and those who are looking for an engaging read.
Not recommended for are looking for lighter reads and those who are drained by very long paragraphs.
Author: Nguyễn Thanh Việt
Publisher: Grove Press
Publishing Date: 2015
Number of Pages: 382 pages
Genre: Historical, Satirical
The winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as five other awards, The Sympathizer is the breakthrough novel of the year. With the pace and suspense of a thriller and prose that has been compared to Graham Greene and Saul Bellow, The Sympathizer is a sweeping epic of love and betrayal. The narrator, a communist double agent, is a “man of two minds,” a half-French, half-Vietnamese army captain who arranges to come to America after the Fall of Saigon, and while building a new life with other Vietnamese refugees in Los Angeles is secretly reporting back to his communist superiors in Vietnam. The Sympathizer is a blistering exploration of identity and America, a gripping espionage novel, and a powerful story of love and friendship.”
About the Author
(Photo by Blogs.Bookforum.Com) Nguyễn Thanh Việt was born on March 13, 1971 in Buon Me Thuot, Vietnam. His family fled to the United States after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
In May 1992, Nguyễn graduated from the University of California Berkeley with a bachelor of arts degree in English and Ethnic Studies. He received his doctorate in English from the same school in 1997. After graduating, he taught as the University of Southern California as an associate professor.
In 2015, he published his first novel, The Sympathizer, which went on to win the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and a bunch of other literary awards. The book also made it to on the “Book of the Year” lists of several publications like The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. His other works include The Refugees (2017), a collection of short stories, and Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and The Memory of War (2016), a non-fiction book.
Nguyễn also serves as a cultural critic-at-large for The Los Angeles Times and as an editor of diaCRITICS, a blog for the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network.