This novel, which won the 2016 Pulitzer Fiction award and many other prizes, is a hybrid. It is a Vietnam War story told from the point of view of a Vietnamese man.
But not just any Vietnamese man. It is a confessional written by a Communist spy who left Vietnam just before the fall of Saigon in 1975 and entered the United States as a refugee mole, commanded to infiltrate the Vietnamese expat community in California.
If this sounds complicated, don’t worry. The author is talented and knows how to tell a story.
And what a story it is. The scenes of the American military’s withdrawal are vivid and horrifying. Once in the U.S., the anti-hero narrator (described in a subsequent interview as “a bad James Bond”) embeds himself in the company of the general he previously served as a captain in the South Vietnamese Army. To protect himself from suspicion as a spy, he participates in the killings of two blameless innocents.
And that’s just the beginning. To call this book “sprawling” is to understate its range, but it is good, really good.
One long set piece has the narrator hired by a character called the Auteur (presumably Francis Ford Coppola) to provide authentic details to a movie called “The Hamlet” (presumably “Apocalypse Now”) being shot in the Philippines in the late 1970s. The narrator comes to understand that Vietnamese authenticity is not wanted so much as an American’s eye view of Vietnamese authenticity. As the film’s shooting ends, the Auteur almost kills the narrator in the film’s final explosion scene.
From there it’s back to a land infiltration of former South Vietnamese military veterans hoping in vain to retake the land they lost. There are ghastly well-described torture scenes and a long turmoil that ends the book with many questions.
A sequel is planned.
Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in 1971 to a devout Catholic family that had fled North Vietnam in 1954 fearing persecution at the hands of the Communist government. In March 1975, after the North Vietnamese Army took over his village, his mother walked 150 miles to Saigon with Viet, then 4, and his 10-year-old brother to meet up with her husband, who already was in Saigon on business. Turned away at the airport, they boarded a barge and made their way to the United States.
After a difficult period in Pennsylvania, the Nguyens joined a Vietnamese community in California, where the parents opened a food store and worked 12- to 14-hour days and encouraged their sons to concentrate on their studies.
The parents succeeded and made a good life. Viet’s older brother is now a highly regarded scientist.
The author, who majored in literature and ethnic studies at Berkeley, remembers almost nothing of the difficult exit from his homeland. But he is the the member of the family who has steeped himself for more than 20 years in Vietnamese history, the Vietnam War and the experience of his compatriots in the U.S., which he regards as a refugee — not an immigrant — experience.
Nguyen is now a professor at the University of Southern California. He has given many interviews about his remarkable first novel, and another nonfiction book he wrote covering much of the same ground. He has cited W. E. B. Du Bois, Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston and Ralph Ellison — outsiders all — as inspirations.
His essential, and valid, critique of American stories and films about Vietnam is that they are American stories with Vietnamese people in the background.
From an interview with the author:
Oftentimes, when you’re a minority writer in the United States, especially if you’re an Asian-American writer, you’re put into the position of apology, of being the cultural ambassador, of being the translator. This is how I would’ve been classified. This is how Asian-American writers are made legible in the publishing industry, so the novel’s very deliberately designed not to do any of those kinds of things. I wanted it to be a confrontational novel, one that wouldn’t try to hold people’s hands or try to translate things. I worked on the assumption that, if I did it well, readers would go along with that.
Anger and Projection
From another interview with the author:
Very little has changed since the moment that I satirize in the novel. The novel is set in the second half of the 1970s, but the effacement and erasure of Asians, Asian Americans and other minorities or people of color still continues to this day in the U.S. What it means is that this industry of memory, which is built on inequality, is rendered very visible in Hollywood both in terms of what it produces, but also how Hollywood itself is structured. That mode of erasing, effacing, or marginalizing people who don’t happen to be white is absolutely central to both the maintenance of structural inequality in the United States, but also as a justification of war against people of color overseas.
While the novel is sensitive to the difficulties of Vietnamese refugees, it also gets in some gratuitous stereotypes that I found a bit jarring. Examples:
The majority of Americans regarded us (Vietnamese) with ambivalence if not outright distaste, we being living reminders of their stinging defeat. We threatened the sanctity and symmetry of a white and black racial America where racial politics left no room for any other color, particularly that of pathetic little yellow-skinned people pickpocketing the American purse.
A dialogue between Vietnamese characters:
“Have you noticed how a white man can learn a few words of some Asian language, and we just eat it up?”
“Have you noticed that when we Asians speak English, it better be nearly perfect or
someone’s going to make fun of our accent?”
There are many other examples.
None of this takes away from the power of “The Sympathizer,” but it does fall in line with much discussion, especially political discussion, in our country today. People dream up exaggerated and unflattering stereotypes of other people whose views they do not share. Right or left, atheist or religious, we respond to people as caricatures and treat them with contempt instead of talking and listening to each other.
It seems worse than ever in this election year. I’m tired of it.
In my view, “The Sympathizer” is a much better book that the two previous Pulitzer fiction winners. Let’s hope this signals the start of a higher-minded trend.