Thursday, August 11, 2016

Book Review: A Satirical and Political Indictment of the Vietnam War

Viet Thanh NguyenThe Sympathizer
Reviewed by Gautam Bhatia

At one point in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, the narrator, recalling the fall of Saigon, falls to reflecting upon the American-christened name of the evacuation operation, Frequent Wind: “I had brooded on it for a year, wondering if I could sue the US government for malpractice, or at least a criminal failure of the literary imagination. Who was the military mastermind who squeezed out Frequent Wind from between his tightly clenched buttocks?” Coming as it does, soon after an almost physically painful description of battlefield casualties during the evacuation – “the fuel tanks… incinerated the three dozen occupants, their teeth exposed in a permanent, simian rictus; the flesh of their lips and faces burned off; the skin a finely charred obsidian, smooth and alien, all the hair converted to ash, no longer recognisable as my countrymen or as human beings” – the flippancy feels strained, almost jarring. And yet, that is the point. Catastrophe is made bearable only by an ability to pick out the tiny absurdities amidst widespread carnage. It is an attitude that marks both Nguyen’s unnamed protagonist, and the novel as a whole.

The Sympathizer is the story of a North Vietnamese communist double-agent, who has successfully infiltrated the inner circle of a South Vietnamese general at the peak of the war. Beginning with the fall of Saigon, The Sympathizer follows its narrator’s flight and exile to the US, where he continues to remain the general’s confidante, while secretly communicating the state of the South Vietnamese diaspora to the communists back home. It follows his bumbling attempts to craft his own identity in an unfamiliar land, as he deals with love, loss and the heartbreak of exile  – “So it was that we soaped ourselves in sadness and we rinsed ourselves with hope…” – and the increasingly ghastly moral compromises that he makes to maintain his role as a double-agent and his final return to Vietnam as part of a doomed expeditionary force that he joins to save the life of his ‘blood brother’, a fiercely partisan South Vietnamese army-man.

At one level, The Sympathizer is a thrilling spy story, a novel about friendship, exile and personal compromise, and a study of moral and mental degradation under the crushing weight of a totalitarian regime. But it is also an unmistakably satirical and political indictment of a savage war that began in hubris and ended in tragedy. Nguyen understands that the sheer magnitude of the destruction cannot be effectively captured through bleak realism, but rather, through a style that disavows its own seriousness, that often pushes us to laughter, before making us remember the darkness that lies underneath. At one point, for instance, he writes:

“Aided (or was it invaded?) by Superman, our fecund little country no longer produced significant amounts of rice, rubber, and tin, cultivating instead an annual bumper crop of prostitutes, girls who had never so much as danced to a rock song before the pimps we called cowboys slapped pasties on their quivering country breasts and prodded them onto the catwalk of a Tu Do bar. Now am I daring to accuse American strategic planners of deliberately eradicating peasant villages in order to smoke out the girls who would have had little choice but to sexually service the same boys who had bombed, shelled, strafed, torched, pillaged, or merely forcibly evacuated said villages? I am merely noting that the creation of native prostitutes to service foreign privates is an inevitable outcome of a war of occupation, one of those nasty little side effects of defending freedom that all the wives, sisters, girlfriends, mothers, pastors, and politicians in Smallville, USA, pretend to ignore behind waxed and buffed walls of teeth as they welcome their soldiers home, ready to treat any unmentionable afflictions with the penicillin of American goodness.”

The almost oppressive lightness of the style effectively conceals the horror of the reality that it describes, but even in the concealment, creates a more lasting sense of disquiet than the urgency of direct description... read more: