Politician’s Funeral Pyre

Viet Nguyen’s debut novel The Sympathizer is reviewed by Cecilia Quirk of the Melbourne Review of Books.

The Vietnam War, it will be no news to anyone, has had considerable impact on world history, both as a national tragedy for Vietnam and in its global cultural impacts.  It sparked a mass movement of people around and out of Vietnam and the rest of Indochina.  The song I’ve posted above is apparently about this migration.  I couldn’t find any English translation of the lyrics and sadly do not know any useful Vietnamese.  The Sympathizer follows the story of a migrant, the Captain, who journeys to the US as a refugee and sleeper agent for the Viet Cong.

Told with a dry, often sarcastic and self-referential humour, The Sympathizer is at once funny and touching.  The considerable feat of making people who would generally be considered war criminals both warm and interesting should not be understated.  Nguyen succeeds in creating complex individuals (for the most part).  The narrator himself is possessed of a fascinating past and psyche, and is self-aware enough to admit both his failings and his skills.

One area where the characterisation does falter is the women, especially Ms Sofia Mori, our Captain’s Japanese-American mistress.  Nguyen sought to defy stereotypes in her.  In fact, she has an entire monologue decrying American attitudes towards Asian woman, and declaring that she is different.  She is insistently American, and that in itself is no problem.  My problem with her is that she is a creature entirely of male fantasy, even as her dialogue tries to paint her as someone who stands in defiance of them.  Ultimately, she still exists in the narrative as a sex object for the Captain, eschewing romance because of her free love politics.  Convenient.

Nguyen’s tale is morally complex and has moments of poignancy.  It has a grand scope, travelling from besieged Saigon to refugee stations, to wasted inner urban America, to Hollywood and beyond.  It tackles the migrant experience, love, war, treachery and loyalty.  Nguyen’s talent matches his ambition in telling this tale.  It is a wonderful, if challenging journey.

I have to confess, the biggest of this novel’s many drawcards for me was its food porn.  Vietnamese food is lovingly drawn, and the difficulties of finding the correct ingredients in the US, as well as the blandness of American food, are also discussed.  Time to find a Vietnamese restaurant for dinner, I think.

Category: Reviews


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