‘The Sympathizer’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Fifty years ago David Ellsburg risked jail with his sensational leak of Pentagon secrets on the Vietnam War. His only regret now is that he didn’t release them earlier. In tune with the times, this month we have been reading ‘The Sympathizer’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a novel about that War and its aftermath and winner of the Pulitzer prize 2016.
The novel is in the form of a confession written in prison by the nameless narrator for his Viet Cong captors as part of his re-education. He is always known as The Captain and is a Communist spy, who first worked under cover with the South Vietnam troops and was then sent with them when they escaped to US after the fall of Vietnam in order to report back on their efforts to mount a guerrilla attack on the Viet Cong. He is a man of dualities who fits in everywhere and nowhere: illegitimate son of a French priest and a Vietnamese girl, acknowledged by neither Americans nor Vietnamese but always seeing both sides. His very friends and blood brothers reflect this duality – Mon who became a communist and the Captain’s handler and Bon the fighter who hated the Vietcong and only wanted to kill them.
One of the most arresting scenes is the fall and bloody exodus of refugees from Saigon at the beginning of the novel. It then follows them to their new life in California, stripped of dignity and position, seen but not seen by the Americans and working hard to make a meagre kind of life. One of the themes of the book is memory and what Thanh Nguyen calls dismemory and the book is full of The Vietnam that these refugees have left behind them. There is humour, albeit a dark humour, as he satirizes the arrogant and deluded General whom he works for but also the rightwing US congressman and his friends who encourage the General to mount a counter revolution – this actually happened. As a double agent the Captain is called upon to carry out acts which he is deeply ashamed of and which return to haunt him throughout his life.
Some of the funniest but most cutting satire is directed against the film director The Auteur. The Captain is sent to the Philippines to act as adviser on authenticity on the making of a film surely based on Apocalypse Now. The Auteur does not appreciate having it pointed out that in a film set in Vietnam not one Vietnamese gets to speak. There is anger that the Vietnamese are only depicted as victims or as evil, rescued by the gallant Green Berets bombing their villages to pieces – the first time that history comes to be written by the losers. This is a long section that later becomes important to his captors.
The Captain disobeys Mon’s order and joins the General’s doomed expedition in order to try to bring his friend Bon back alive. Thanks to the information he himself has been sending, they are ambushed and taken captive and the process of re-educating the Captain takes place. It is a shocking section and one many of us found hard to read and there is a real twist at the end.
This is a novel about identity, idealism and politics. Along the way it satirizes the South Vietnamese, the Americans and finally the North Vietnamese, showing the absurdity, incompetence and futility of the War. It is a novel in which tragedy and comedy go hand in hand. It is not an easy read – the critics highly praised it but some of us found it difficult and the final section almost unreadable. However it is a subtle, multi-layered book which improves with rereading and understanding. It is worth listening to the author talking about it and I must confess it read aloud very well.