In the 1980s and 90s I discovered some great new (to me) women writers through the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction: The Color Purple by Alice Walker; Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie, and Beloved by Toni Morrison; also A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley; The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx; and The Stone Diaries by Carol Fields. Looking through the list of winners I see that I missed some great names in fiction by mostly reading women authors in those years: I didn’t read Thomas Pynchon or John Updike, for example, and I still haven’t. I broadened my tastes after that and discovered Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and The Known World by Edward P Jones as well as Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and of course March by our very own Aussie Geraldine Brooks. But then came The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz; Tinkers by Paul Harding and A Visit from the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan, and I disliked all these books so much that I didn’t finish any of them and threw the baby out with the bathwater by ignoring the Pulitzer Prize from then onwards.
The Sympathizer by debut novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, broke through that self-imposed barrier because of its subject matter (which I read about in Readings Monthly). I was intrigued by its story of a US-educated Vietnamese Communist mole, who – at the time that the story begins in 1975 – is working undercover as an aide to a General in the South Vietnamese army. So at the iconic moment when the Viet Cong tank broke through the gates of the Presidential Palace, the unnamed narrator of the novel is privately celebrating along with the victors, even as he joins the flood of refugees in the chaotic helicopter evacuation out of Saigon. Amongst refugees suddenly reduced in status in the US, where he sends covert reports back to his ‘aunt’ in Paris, his political sympathies lie elsewhere.
This novel is about many things: the immigrant experience in America; the contradictions of American life; and the impact of US foreign policy and its wars on the lives of others. Through the narrative technique of the written ‘confession’ made to the Vietnamese Commander, it also reveals divided loyalties; the duality of human nature; and the longing for home, love and family. All this is leavened by delicious irony and stunning prose:
The grand opening began later that afternoon, the General shaking hands with well-wishers while chatting easily and smiling incessantly. Like a shark who must keep swimming to live, a politician – which was what the General had become – had to keep his lips constantly moving. The constituents, in this case, were old colleagues, followers, soldiers, and friends, a platoon of thirty or so middle-aged men whom I had rarely encountered without their uniforms until our time in the refugee camps on Guam. Seeing them again in mufti, a year later, confirmed the verdict of defeat and showed these men now to be guilty of numerous sartorial misdemeanours. They squeaked around the store in bargain-basement penny loafers and creased budget khakis, or in ill-fitting suits advertised by wholesalers for the price of buy-one-get-one-free. Ties, handkerchiefs, and socks were thrown in, though what was really needed was cologne, even of the gigolo kind, anything to mask the olfactory evidence of their having been gleefully skunked by history. As for me, even though I was of lesser rank than most of these men, I was better dressed, thanks to Professor Hammer’s hand-me-downs. With just a bit of tailoring, his blue blazer with gold buttons and his grey flannel slacks fit me perfectly.
Thus smartly dressed, I made my way through the men, all of whom I knew in my capacity as the General’s aide. Many once commanded artillery batteries and infantry battalions, but now they possessed nothing more dangerous than their pride, their halitosis, and their car keys. I had reported all the gossip about these vanquished soldiers to Paris, and knew what they did (or, in many cases, did not do) for a living. Most successful was a general famous for using his crack troops to harvest cinnamon, whose circulation he monopolised; now this spice merchant lorded over a pizza parlour. (p.87-8)
The narrator goes on to list the mundane options taken up by these refugees, consumed by the metastasizing cancer called assimilation and susceptible to the hypochondria of exile while the reader adjusts her ideas about successful integration into the host economy. It made me remember the Vietnamese family I knew when teaching in Springvale: both parents had been professionals but in Australia they were working in the local car factory, pinning their hopes on their daughter’s education to restore their position in society and their self-esteem. It did not occur to me then that they might be resentful of her quick mastery of English and her acquisition of confident feminist attitudes towards the inherent superiority of men. Nguyen is masterful at depicting the quandary of such refugees, cheerfully undercutting the narrator’s sympathies with arch commentary about how their memories had been laundered so thoroughly by nostalgia.
The narrator himself has the memories which shaped him. Born into grinding poverty in Northern Vietnam, he is the unacknowledged son of the Catholic priest who seduced his mother. At critical times in his subsequent life, he remembers her advice to him when he came home sobbing after yet another example of the discrimination against mixed race children, of whom there were enough since the arrival of the GIs, to form a nation. He was not half of anything, she said, he was twice as good…
He needs all his reserves of courage when he surrenders to a bond forged in his youth with Bon and Man. Each bears a livid scar on his hand, an emblem of the day they became blood-brothers. When Bon, devastated by the loss of his wife and child on the tarmac of their escape, decides to return to Vietnam in a guerrilla group with fanciful dreams of liberating the country from the Communists, the narrator goes with him, to protect him from his suicidal wishes. But as we know from the first lines on the novel, the narrator is captured and required to give an account of himself. His ‘confession’ inevitably betrays the signs of Americanisation and his captors turn the tables on him, using the very techniques of ‘soft’ torture that he had learned when in training. It’s harrowing reading.
The Sympathizer is a terrific book that held my attention throughout. Highly recommended.
Author: Viet Thanh Nguyen
Title: The Sympathizer
Publisher: Corsair, 2016
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $22.99
Fishpond: The Sympathizer. BTW prices vary widely, this UK Corsair edition is noticeably cheapest. It’s $18.13 at Fishpond compared to nearly $30 for a different edition. (And this one has a better cover design.)