Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

In this Pulitzer Prize winning debut novel Viet Thanh Nguyen tells the story of what happened after the Vietnamese war to the diaspora of his people, through the effective telling of its narrator, a Captain in the South Vietnamese army. From the start we know that the Captain is telling the story as a confession to the Commissar, and that he is was a spy on behalf of the Viet Cong. It is this retrospective telling, and the Captain's dual role, as being an intimate of the American-supported forces in Saigon, as well as an undercover agent, only known as such by his childhood friend Man, his "handler", that gives the tale its power. For here we have a classic unreliable, but compelling narrator, in the vogue of Tristram Shandy or Huckleberry Finn, a witness to events, but also, because of his "mole" status, a morally compromised one.

Nguyen has said in an article that the novel was a long time coming and one can imagine why. The Vietnamese writer was born in 1970 and so is not the generation of the older captain, but finding a way of telling this story, one that has been so co-opted by the America that he went to and grew up in, cannot have been easy. The Vietnam war is perfect for there to be a "double agent" or a "mole". The Americans were always uncertain which Vietnamese could be VC. The Captain is also another kind of "double" for he is an outsider amongst his own society because of his parentage. The "bastard" son of a catholic priest and his much loved Vietnamese mother, he had grown up as someone unaccepted - until he discovers two close friends, Man and Bon, who become his blood brothers.

The first scenes of the novel are both comic and filled with tension as we are in the last days of Saigon, and as the "fixer" to the General, our narrator is sorting out  a plane out of Saigon, arranged by the Americans, knowing that if they are left behind they will surely be massacred as Saigon gets sacked by the VC. Here is the conundrum of the spy. He is at the heart of the operation doing things to defeat an "enemy" who he actually supports. His job is to report back, it is his "handler" who has to decide what to do with the information. Suitable bribes are paid but its still a chaos at the airport as they escape and amongst those who don't make it are Bon's wife and child who are cruelly shot as they run for the replacement plane. Amongst the three friends, Man is the communist, Bon is on the side of the Americans and the Captain is in between, his other loyalty to their friendship.

He gets out and to America and the General, his supporters, and their families are now in California, taking jobs in restaurants or as menial workers after once being part of the ruling class in their home country. The Captain seems happiest here. His ability with the language landing him work, and he even finds a lover through his job, an older woman at the university. It is a transactional relationship, which suits the spy. In America though, the General begins to develop the counter-revolution, wanting to build a force to send back to Vietnam, and begins soliciting support and money from American politicians. Through this an opportunity comes for the Captain to go to the Phillipines as an adviser to an auteur who is making a film about the Vietnam war. The novel begins feeling very much like a picaresque at this point, as these scenes of the post-Vietnam life are held together by the Captain's presence there. He is supposed to be there to make a more sympathetic portrayal of the Vietnamese - but this film is a fictionalised version of "Apocalypse Now", and the Vietnamese - extras pulled from the refugee camps - are there purely for a dubious authenticity. Here, the spy narrative seems to slacked a little - after all what role is he over there for? As supportive of his own side of the General's?

For the war is over, but in the aftermath, the repressions of the VC regime are what keeps an opposition going in absentia. "Nothing is more important than freedom", runs the line which has kept the Captain believing  - yet the novel skilfully tracks what that means. For the peasant supporting the VC, it is taking back a country that has been run by foreign powers for so long, and giving that power to the people - yet by the mid-1970s the template for communist revolutionary states was no longer about Marx but about its Totalitarian nationalist leaders. Dissent was not allowed, and by the time - at the end of the novel - that the Captain returns to Saigon - he finds that American music is banned as "yellow" rather than "red" (aka. "communist") music. Yet in America freedom is one that sees the American's invading another country in the guise of protecting freedoms. The Cold War, it is commented, was actually very hot.

"The Sympathizer" is a long book but its pleasures are many. The Captain is allowed to give voice to poetic digressions at times, where the complexities of the world he finds himself in are delineated. The plot sees him as very much a follower - first of the communists, and then of this bosses, whose orders, which include to kill, he has to follow to protect his cover. The first of these murders is morally ambiguous perhaps, even though it is a "trumped up" charge that sees an allleged "mole" in the camp killed, so protecting himself. The second is harsher, and we see how morally compromised he has become.

Joining the counter-revolutionary advance group - a futile suicide mission - he is captured and finally comes to face to face with his handler, and throughout with his past. The things we haven't been told, are the things he has kept from himself. At times this part of the novel gets a little caught up in its ambiguities and the author's desire to retain his narrator's sunny disposition. He just about pulls it off, I think, in what is essentially a comic book about the most serious of times. In this at least, you can see that it takes on that masterpiece of contradictory wartime madness that is "Catch 22", and if it owes something to that book's clever irreverancy, particularly in the role of the Captain, who is essentially a figure on the peripherary of the action, it does so in a way that works. For if there is a moral conversation that the book tries to have - it is to highlight the absurdity and contradictions in war. With its main character being half-white, half-Vietnamese, we are given both sides of the argument, so to speak.

For what do we know of Vietnam other than through the prism of our memories? The Vietnam war was opposed in the west mainly because of the western lives it would take, and - belatedly by realisation of the horrors imposed to try and "win" it - rather than what is best for the Vietnamese people. For the tragedy of these wars of deliverance is that the new regime, a pariah state in many ways, kept together through a political absolutism, and fearful of its own dismantlement, becomes every bit as repressive to its people as the one that came before - or the one that might have replaced it had it lost. This book is highly sensitive to these challenges but withouthhaving any trite answers the author perhaps overplays the contradictions.

As a debut novel it has some debut novel faults; it does seem to have gestated over a long period and its length seems more about being a comprehensive statement rather than for any necesssary unity. The scenes for the auteur's film are the weakest in the book, as if they came in from another earlier attempt at the novel.  Towards the end, as we understand why this is a confession, and why it is being written, the Captain becomes the victim, being tortured by his own side for his own contradictory nature. There seems an attempt to over-justify what has just happened: the secrets that he has kept from himself show he is as tainted by war as anyone, that "judgement" in war is based as much on who you did it to, as what you did. The reader comes away a little more numb, a little more appalled, yet I'm not sure anymore enlightened, other than to realise that this is not quite the comic novel is sets itself up as, but something more. By the end the Captain has become of what the west calls the "boat people".  Because of the years of tragedy since that time I'd almost forgotten about this period. With Vietnam liberalising over the years, and never becoming the atrocity that was Cambodia under Pol Pot, its easy to forget where we were in the nineteen seventies. This novel does a powerful job of helping us remember, but its also a joy to read, full of delights, and having found the perfect funnel - the "mole" - through which to tell the complex story, a worthy prize winner, without ever being merely worthy.

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