Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Viet Damn

“The Sympathizer,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen, 2015

This biting historical and satirical novel examines the Vietnamese experience after the American War ended – that of the refugees, the ARVN hardcore and the Communist victors.  Nguyen is a sympathizer of the Vietnamese revolution that overthrew capital and kicked the U.S. out of Vietnam, but he also sympathizes personally with the experience of all of the Vietnamese, even the sad cases that were thrown onto the U.S. mainland after April 1975.  Hence the double meaning of the title.

The Satiric War
The central character is a Communist agent who has been assigned to spy on the ARVN secret police and military.  He (a man with no name) is a spy embedded with a top General in the ARVN security services, feeding information to his Viet Cong contacts and later the CP government through invisible ink on the pages of a ridiculous right-wing book.  Scenes portray the last days of the Saigon regime and the downtrodden lives of the Vietnamese exiles in Los Angeles.  It closes with a doomed and pathetic military attempt to infiltrate back into Vietnam through Laos to start a guerilla war.

He’s conflicted because he likes free love, drinking, good novels, rock music and aspects of the U.S. like air-conditioning, while still making merciless fun of American racism and reactionary cultural clichés. These are best expressed in quotations from William Westmoreland and the making of the film “Apocalypse Now” – both portrayed through aliases in this book.  Nguyen writes the book from the Vietnamese ethnic perspective, looking at the odd customs and ideas of white Americans from the outside.

As a product of the rape of a Vietnamese woman by an American priest (perhaps symbolic), his own body is marked by this conflict.  The Vietnamese continually call him a ‘bastard’ – and that starts him on a critical look at Vietnamese culture too.  He is forced by the General to participate in the killing of a fat major suspected of being a ‘red’ spy – fingered by himself to deflect attention. He is also forced to kill a liberal Vietnamese journalist who thinks the Vietnamese should get over the war.  Both of these acts weigh on his conscience and politics. 

He has two ‘blood’ brothers – Man and Bon - who attempt to take care of each other throughout the whole book, even though Bon supports the Saigon government and Man and he support the Communist Party.  This odd personal thread makes him even more conflicted due to his personal loyalties.  And perhaps that is the nature of reality, according to Nguyen. 

Ultimately the spy is sent to a re-education camp after being captured by his own people.  He had joined a reactionary guerilla incursion into Vietnam against orders, something he ostensibly did to save his buddy Bon.  Earlier he had not stopped the rape of a female Vietcong agent, and for that they seek a confession.  In the camp he is tortured by his friend Man (!) using CIA/Phoenix/MKUltra methods of sensory deprivation, designed not to mar the body but to break down the mind – loud music, sleeplessness, nakedness, lack of human contact, sight or hearing.  These methods the Communists learned from the CIA – methods used by the U.S. in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo.  He eventually is released by parroting one of Ho Chi Minh’s most important sayings, which Nguyen interprets as having a double-meaning. 

Nguyen (unlike Ralph Ellison in “The Invisible Man,” who Nguyen points out, retreated to individualism) still believes in the revolution, but is aware of its fallibility – especially the growth of bureaucratic oppression like re-education camps and confessions forced on many citizens.  This method was based on psychological criticism/self-criticism theory imported from Maoism.  The whole book is actually slyly structured as a ‘confession.’  Yet Nguyen is an anti-imperialist even with his broad sympathies, and thus an outlier in the right-wing, gold-bar Vietnamese Diaspora.  Here is one of his quotes from the book:  "Not to own the means of production can lead to premature death, but not to own the means of representation is also a kind of death."  Hence his writing...

This is the funniest ‘black humor’ book to come out of the American war – if humor can exist in such a context.  It is a great first novel that aims most of its fire at the U.S. and its crapulent allies.   

And did he recently win the Pulitzer Prize for this very work?  I think so.

Other books about Vietnam reviewed below:  People’s History of the Vietnam War,” “What it is like to go to War,” “Kill Anything That Moves,” “Matterhorn,” “Soldiers in Revolt,” “In the Crossfire,”  Use blog search box, upper left. 

And I bought it a Mayday Bookstore's excellent fiction section!
Red Frog
July 26, 2016

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