Monday, July 17, 2017

The Sympathizer: Page-Turner Hard NOT to Put Down

"But amnesia was as American as apple pie," muses the double-agent who narrates Viet Thanh Nguyen's first novel The Sympathizer (Grove Press, 2015, p. 195).

That's the kind of off-hand observation that makes this page-turner so hard not to put down -- because on every page the reader wants to make a note of a witty observation, provocative statement, or apt simile.  For instance, Hollywood, by "softening up the world," functions as "the launcher of the intercontinental ballistic missile of Americanization" (172); Vietnamese refugees are exiled in time as in space, keeping their clocks set to Saigon time and always thinking "When can I return?" (199); men at the end of a long banquet "nuzzle [their] cocktails with the affection one reserved for puppies" (261). 

The story is simple enough.  Our unnamed narrator serves a General of the deposed Saigon regime, first helping him to exile in the USA,  assassinating two of the General's enemies, and finally spearheading an armed incursion against the unified Vietnam's communist regime. 

What complicates the story, and what allows Nguyen so much room for trenchant wit, is that the narrator is a double agent. Son of a single Vietnamese mother and an odious French priest, he has the "destiny" or "talent" of a "bastard" for "seeing from two sides"(314).   He was educated in the US; he knows how his homeland appears in Western novels and pop culture -- Graham Greene's The Quiet American earning particular scorn for treating Vietnamese women as metaphors (114).  But he's not blind to the weaknesses and corruption in Vietnam, or in himself. After committing the first assassination, he goes on a drinking binge, writing,  "Besides my conscience, my liver was the most abused part of my body" (114).  The ghosts of his two victims literally haunt him.

A long satiric interlude in the story concerns our narrator's serving as consultant to the Auteur of an Apocalypse-Now kind of movie.   Until our narrator gets involved, the epic movie has no Vietnamese characters.   Besides being viciously funny, this portion of the novel takes time out from comedy for a touching moment when the narrator mourns at the grave of his mother -- in a phony cemetery on the set of the movie.  

One of the novel's most concentrated passages for political banter is our narrator's confrontation with Richard Hedd (I got the joke, Professor Nguyen, but I don't think it seemly to mention it). Hedd is revered by American hawks as more expert on Vietnam than the natives, if only because of his British accent (259).  Quoting from pages of Hedd's book that describe "categories" of Vietnamese people, our narrator develops those literal pages as a metaphor:
These categories existed as pages in a book exist, but most of us were composed of many pages, not just one.    Still, I suspected, as Dr. Hedd scrutinized me, that what he saw was not that I was a book but that I was a sheet, easily read and easily mastered.  I was going to prove him wrong.  (252)
Hedd, as a non-American, comments freely on the pursuit of happiness. For Americans, he says, that's a "zero - sum game," measuring one's own happiness against someone else's unhappiness (255). Our narrator and his boss the General turn the discussion around when someone avers that Afghanistan, "the new Vietnam," supersedes Asia as America's concern.  "As a nonwhite person, the General, like myself, knew he must be patient with white people, who were easily scared by the nonwhite."  The narrator continues...
We ate their food, we watched their movies, we observed their lives and psyche via television and in everyday contact, we learned their language, we absorbed their subtle cues, we laughed at their jokes, even when made at our expense, we humbly accepted their condescension, we eavesdropped on their conversations in supermarkets and the dentist's office, and we protected them by not speaking our own language in their presence, which unnerved them. ...[W]e probably did know white people better than they knew themselves.... (258)

...though mysteries remained, such as how to make cranberry sauce or throw a football.

Nguyen chose for his epigraph a statement by Nietzsche that there's "something to laugh at" in torture.   Our narrator's book is a confession addressed to the official in charge of his reeducation, and torture is involved.  I can't say I agree with Nietzsche on this one, and I had to fight myself not to put the book down, this time for good.

But I do agree with wonderful writer Robert Olen Butler, author of stories of Vietnamese exiles collected in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.  He writes of Nguyen's book that it "transcends history and politics and nationality and speaks to the enduring theme of literature: the universal quest for self, for identity."

And, it's funny.

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