It seems as though there have been a lot of first novels lately; maybe there always have been and I have just been oblivious. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer”, winner of the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Award for Excellence in Fiction, is a good one, so long as you do not mind vivid descriptions of deception, murder and torture!
Nguyen’s lead character and narrator is a Captain in South Vietnam but he is also a spy for, and sympathizes with, the Communists. And do not worry, I am not giving anything away. The first line of the book is “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” The Captain is a complex man, the product of a Vietnamese mother and a French priest. So when he says he is a man of two faces, he means it both literally and figuratively and portions of the book speak to the prejudice he experiences from being biracial and without a traditional father.
When we first meet the Captain he is being held by the Communist victors well after the fall of Saigon and is being forced to write his confession. Through his confession we learn about the war, the complexities of his interpersonal relationships–both romantic and otherwise–and the very meaningful differences between American and Vietnamese culture and perspective. Everything is told through the Captain’s experiences and wry observations.
The Captain works for a South Vietnamese General as a fixer, getting all sorts of things done behind the scenes. The Captain has two very close friends, one of whom is active with the Communists (Man) and the other is a loyal supporter of the other side (Bon). The General is planning an escape to America before the fall of Saigon and the Captain is ordered to go with him and report on his activities. The Captain, the General, the General’s family, Bon and a host of other characters make it out of Vietnam and settle in the Los Angeles area. Initially they all struggle but the General finds his way and continues to give orders and arrange assassinations of those he believes to be disloyal.
The Captain has a couple of romantic relationships while in America and ultimately becomes a consultant to the creator of a movie about the Vietnam War. When reviewing the script, written by a famous and narcissistic Hollywood Director, the Captain is shocked by the lack of meaningful input by any Vietnamese character. “I was flummoxed by having read a screenplay whose greatest special effect was neither the blowing up of various things nor the evisceration of various bodies, but the achievement of narrating movie about our country where not a single one of our countrymen had an intelligible word to say.” And when the Captain suggests to the Director that he did not get certain details about the war and Vietnam correct, the Director is outraged that the Captain should think that his personal experience should be more meaningful than the Director’s research on the topic.
The Captain’s perspective on America is not complimentary. Throughout the book he offers caustic and critical commentary on Americans, American politics and the country itself. In anticipation of his trip to America, the Captain describes his perspective of America, where he had previously been educated, as follows: “America, land of supermarkets and superhighways, of supersonic jets and Superman, of supercarriers and the Super Bowl!…Although every country thought itself superior in its own way, was there ever a country that coined so many “super” terms from the federal bank of its narcissism, was not only superconfident but also truly superpowerful, that would not be satisfied until it locked every nation of the world into a full nelson and made it cry Uncle Sam?”
The Captain returns to Vietnam, reconnects with Man in the most unlikely of ways and engages in some serious soul searching, wondering whether he had chosen the right or wrong side and ultimately concluding that, in the end, the victors of battle seeking political change become nothing more than the oppressors who preceded them. “…I understood, at last, how our revolution had gone from being the vanguard of political change to the rearguard of hoarding power….Having liberated ourselves in the name of independence and freedom –I was so tired of saying these words!–we then deprived our defeated brethren of the same.”
“The Sympathizer” is well-written, thoughtful and complex. There are various scenes and situations which are very uncomfortable to read, but history can be uncomfortable and there are things we need to know and should never forget. The book deserved the Carnegie Award for Excellence in Fiction and is a good, challenging read. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11156111__Sthe%20sympathizer__P0%2C2__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold and you can actually register to see the author at the South Euclid Lyndhurst Branch on April 12 by clicking on http://www.cuyahogalibrary.org/Events/Event-Results/Event-Detail.aspx?id=77183. Register soon as I am sure this one will be a sell out!