By Viet Thanh Nguyen
At the outset of Nguyen’s multi award winning novel about the end of and the immediate period following the fall of Saigon, the Captain acknowledges he is a man of dualities and thus a man who can see both sides of most anything. These dualities prove quite extensive: spy for the North, intelligence officer for the South; intelligence officer for the South and “handyman” for the General; son of a Vietnamese woman and a white priest; ritual blood brother to a Viet Cong and an ARVN officer; raised in Vietnam and educated in America. These dualities provide him with a unique perspective on Vietnam, on the war, the rebels, the ARVN and Saigon government, on the Americans and the CIA, and on the treatment of immigrants and the assimilative process in America. In addition to the brilliant writing, the quick pace, the various plot devices, the dark humor, and the nihilism (rejected, so fear not) to which the novel builds, all making for compelling reading, what readers will particularly value is the different, outside perspective Nguyen manages through the eyes of his man of dualities. It is a novel not to be missed.
The Captain narrates the novel, which is a long flashback written to satisfy the requirements of his reeducation for acceptance back into the new, victorious Socialist Republic of Vietnam. He details his work as adjunct to the General, his liaison with the CIA agent Claude, and the ARVN entourage’s harrowing escape when Vietnam falls. Relating that he was in constant secret communication with his friend and ritual blood brother as well as handler Man, he reports on the activities of the General and their mutual blood brother Bon, a devastated and embittered survivor of the flight from Saigon. These include the General’s loss of stature and near refusal to assimilate into American life and his desperate clinging to hope and authority by organizing a counterinsurgency, and his, the Captain’s, own involvement in it. Among other activities for General, he explains his complicity in the murder of the Major (scapegoated to hide the Captain’s undercover work) by Bon, and his own murder of Sonny, the newspaperman troubling the General (something of murder of dual motivations, as Sonny had taken up with a Ms. Mori, a woman the Captain thought he might love). In the end, to save Bon, the Captain joins the expedition back to Vietnam, where the ill-conceived mission results in the deaths of most and the capture of a handful, himself and Bon among them, and to the writing of his confession.
The novel contains many high points and telling observations on American perceptions of their so-called allies and the people they ostensively fight to save, but none more bitting than the making of the movie The Hamlet, for which Apocalypse Now served as the model. Ironically, Man and the General both grant the Captain permission to act as liaison in the hope of gaining fair treatment of the Vietnamese. In the end, the Captain succeeds only in persuading the Auteur to alter the screams of Vietnamese victims, absurdism at its best.
On not too much of tangent, if the situation of acting as an undercover agent immersed in another culture, especially the idea of how you maintain your loyalty and focus when the other culture serves up many temptations for disloyalty, intrigues you, take a look at the cable show The Americans. Among the compelling forces behind this highly praised program is that very idea.
As for The Sympathizer, as mentioned before, it is a novel not to be missed. w/c