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A version of this review first appeared in Scroll.in. It is reproduced here with permission from the reviewer, Jai Arjun Singh.
“I am a man of two faces, and also a man of two minds”, the narrator-protagonist of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathizer says in the novel’s opening paragraph. “I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.”
The theme of two-facedness will run through this book: near the end, it will find an echo in a tragically grotesque image – a two-headed baby, a victim of a chemical experiment, preserved in formaldehyde – that could come from a horror movie about mutants, but could just as easily be the narrator’s view of himself in a distorting mirror. As we travel through the tortured landscape of his mind, his dual-sidedness will also be revealed as a metaphor for his war-torn country, Vietnam.
In its use of a protagonist who is buffeted around by circumstances, and who can be seen as representing a nation’s turbulent history, this book is reminiscent of such modern classics as Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Our country was cursed, bastardized, partitioned into north and south, the narrator tells us. Being the child of a Vietnamese mother and a French-Catholic priest, he wears the “bastard” tag himself: he belongs nowhere. (“Just as my abused generation was divided before birth, so was I divided on birth, delivered into a post-partum world where hardly anyone accepted me for whom I was, but only ever bullied me into choosing between my two sides.”)
This also means he is well-versed in the art of deception. After spending six idyllic years as a student in America in the 1960s, he returns and works as an aide to a South Vietnamese general – but all the while he is really a spy, secretly passing on information to the Communists in the north. Then, in the mid-70s, after the end of the war and the fall of Saigon, he finds himself back in the US, this time as a refugee – still an associate of the general, still a Communist spook, and not quite sure of his place in the world.
As if conscious that nothing must be too clearly stated, the narrator (perhaps one should call him The Narrator) doesn’t name himself and many of the people around him, instead designating them the General, “the crapulent major”, “the affectless lieutenant”, the Poet, the Auteur, and so on. This sort of thing can become strained or self-conscious even in clearly allegorical literature, but it works here, and it is poignant that when names are given, they are usually of the few people with whom the narrator has an emotional connection: an American friend named Claude, a woman called Mrs Mori (or, as they become more intimate, Sofia), and most importantly, his childhood friends Man and Bon, whom he describes as his blood brothers and fellow musketeers. Even this relationship, though, is complicated by the fact that while Man and the narrator are Communists, Bon is not, and is unaware of their allegiance.
The early passages establish most of this information and include an intense account of the 1975 evacuation, the escape from Saigon to Guam and thence to America. A non-Vietnamese reader might want to quickly reacquaint himself with the basic historical facts before reading this book. (I’ll admit to feeling a little muddled during some of the initial scenes, swamped by the casual references to Vietnamese politics, the rival armies, their strategies and subterfuges.) Because, remember, this isn’t just a story about a particular place in a particular moment, it comes to us in the voice of a double agent who often says “we” when he is talking about the side he is betraying; a conflicted man who struggles to reconcile the political with the personal. What happens when the wife and little boy of his closest friend are killed in front of him, and he has to help the friend carry their bodies to the plane on which they are fleeing Saigon… all the while knowing that the fatal bullets were fired by people whose side he himself is secretly on?
Later, in the US, here he is, a communist at heart and in theory, benefiting from the trappings and privileges of a capitalist society – an all-too-familiar example of an ideologue confronted with a yawning gap between his stated position and life’s inconvenient realities. He is caught in what must be very frustrating situations: being unable, for instance, to reveal the truth even to those liberal, anti-war Americans who might sympathize with him. His moral compass is further muddied when he has to participate in a murder (or “assassination”), and then singlehandedly carry one out, to avoid suspicion falling on himself.
The Sympathizer becomes more darkly funny when the narrator is employed as a consultant on a film about Vietnam, made by a celebrated American director. I was a little unsettled by these passages, because while the film being shot comes across as a cliché-ridden travesty – a simple-minded Hollywoodisation of “exotic” people – there are also sly allusions to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. (The character played by the Method-acting Thespian dies with the words “The whore! The whore!” on his lips, much as Brando’s Kurtz mumbles “The horror! The horror!” in Coppola’s epic.) Most film buffs would agree that Apocalypse Now is more ambitious and hard-hitting than what we call “typical Hollywood”, far from a gung-ho celebration of American superiority. And yet, reading about the fictitious film in The Sympathizer is to be reminded that even Coppola’s epic, as it travels into the Vietnamese jungles, treats the Vietnamese themselves as shadowy figures on the periphery of the narrative: inarticulate (or rather, not articulating at all), with no inner lives and no agency. And thinking about this, one is further reminded that the source for that film, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for all its literary merits, referred to the native Africans’ language as “a violent babble of uncouth sounds”.
Given the very specific nature of the Vietnam-US encounter, one hesitates, as a non-Vietnamese reader, to claim too much identification with the narrator’s story – and yet, there is a larger resonance here for anyone from a third-world country who has felt ambivalent about the American behemoth; for urban Indians like myself, who have resented the superpower’s bullying and hypocrisy while at the same time being, in many ways, products of American popular culture, deeply influenced by and even passionate about their films, music and television. As the narrator puts it:
We ate their food, we watched their movies, we observed their lives […] we were the greatest anthropologists ever of the American people, which the American people never knew because our field notes were written in our own language in letters and postcards dispatched to our countries of origin, where our relatives read our reports with hilarity, confusion and awe.
In one startling passage, the narrator wakes groggily after a drunken binge and is “frightened by the severed head of a gigantic insect gaping its jaws at me, until I realized it was only the wood-paneled television, its twin antennae drooping”. The imagery is vivid on its own terms, but it has another dimension when one considers the monstrous force of American pop-culture, broadcasting its version of events far and wide, exercising control on other parts of the world.
Though the book has many sharp moments like these, I felt the prose was sometimes over-cooked. One example among many: “As the debacle unfolded, the calcium and lime deposits of memory from the last days of the damned republic encrusted themselves in the pipes of my brain,” the narrator says. At other times he tries a little too hard to be funny (“I stopped breathing and waited for the General to pull out the pistol with which he was going to remove my brains in an unsurgical fashion”). It can be argued that some of the florid prose reflects the fact that the narrator – not a novelist by profession – is writing his story during a year-long captivity, where he has little else to do but revisit and polish sentences, use the process as a way of staying sane and motivated. But even so, the overwriting came close to distancing me from the character, especially in the early chapters, when it is more pronounced.
In the long run, though, this ceases to matter as the book heads for its searing conclusion – a brilliant, absurdist final segment that involves both interrogation and self-interrogation. By the end, one can see how adept Nguyen is at foreshadowing, so that one incident, image or turn of phrase that occurs early in the narrative – such as an allusion to what the narrator feels is an unnecessary rape scene in the Auteur’s movie, or the observation that Vietnam’s “demureness” stirred pederastic fantasies in Western writers – acquires a potent new dimension in a later scene.
This book is about many things: the gap between youth and adulthood; rigid ideology set against a more capacious understanding of people and the contradictions they carry within themselves; how two-facedness can mean hypocrisy, fence-sitting or betrayal – but can equally mean the ability to be more empathetic than those who too easily choose sides. It is also about the life of the mind, about the search for nuance that can come through writing. During his confinement, the narrator writes a 295-page-long “confession” for a leader known only as the Commandant. But the Commandant is unsatisfied. He doesn’t want complex thoughts or excessive introspection, he wants clear, succinct language – the language “of the people”. And one is reminded that this is how it tends to be with people in positions of power, whether they are right-wing or left-wing, nationalists or communists: their interests lie in keeping things simple, clear-cut, black and white, in discouraging too much reflection.
In a sense then, it is appropriate that The Sympathizer itself is not a simple or straightforward read. One reason for this is Nguyen’s decision to not use quote-marks for the dialogue passages, and to use long paragraphs in such a way that the text flows on and on and comes to resemble stream-of-consciousness, even during a dialogue scene between two people. In many such passages, you have to read carefully to separate conversation from description or thought, or even to make out who is saying what. The author is not attempting neat, ordered clarity – instead, this device effectively creates the sense that many voices are concentrated in one: that our narrator is in an endless monologue with himself, weighing first one position, then the next; and that the other characters are versions of himself, united by humanity but divided by belief systems.