Viet Thanh Nguyen sits down with historian Jon Weiner to talk about The Sympathizer.
Here is the transcript:
Jon: Now it’s time to talk about the best political novel of the year. It’s called The Sympathizer. It starts with the Fall of Saigon in 1975, seen from the perspective of a Vietnamese man, a captain in South Vietnam secret police who’s also a spy for the Vietcong. It’s one of the few novels about the Vietnam War written by a Vietnamese person with Vietnamese characters at its center, and it is terrific. The author is Viet Nguyen, N-G-U-Y-E-N kind of Nguyen. It’s his first novel. He’s published a lot of other things, short stories, scholarly books, articles. He’s an associate professor of English and American Studies in Ethnicity at USC. He’s won many awards and grants. His writing has been translated into Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Spanish.
Jon: Viet Nguyen, welcome to the program.
Viet Nguyen: Thank you very much for having me, Jon.
Jon: Well, I wanted to start with a reading from the beginning of The Sympathizer.
Viet Nguyen: Sure. This is the opening paragraph of the book:
Viet Nguyen: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I’m also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I’m simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly of one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times, when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. But talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you, that is a hazard, I must confess. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear.”
Jon: Viet Nguyen reading from the opening of his novel, The Sympathizer. Our narrator calls himself a man of two faces and also of two minds, and what we are reading is a confession, apparently. Tell us more about this guy.
Viet Nguyen: Well, he is a spy in the South Vietnamese Army, and the novel begins in April of 1975 when Saigon falls or is liberated, depending on your point of view. His new mission is to flee with the remnants of that army to the United States, where he’s going to spy on their efforts to take their homeland back. It’s based on real historical events, inspired by certain kinds of real historical personages, but the character of the captain is someone who is a man torn between cultures, torn between sides, torn between beliefs. He does see things from both sides, he empathizes with both sides in this kind of a conflict, and that’s his great insight, but also his great tragedy, as well.
Jon: When I started reading this book, I didn’t know you or your work, all I knew was that you taught at USC. I wondered, “Who is this guy who can write this amazing novel?” Turns out you have a complicated and interesting family history. Tell us about that.
Viet Nguyen: Well, I was born in Vietnam, in a little town called Buon Me Thuot, which was famous for coffee and for being the first town run over in 1975 in the final invasion. We had a very dramatic story, my parents basically had to give up everything and flee, run for their lives with myself and my 11-year-old brother. I was four years old at the time, and we came to United States as refugees. We lived very much, in some ways, the American dream story because my parents rebuilt their fortunes and became very successful. My brother went to Harvard and is now the chair of a White House Commission and I’m a professor.
Viet Nguyen: But underneath all of that, I grew up in a Vietnamese ethnic enclave in San Jose where I was constantly surrounded by stories of trauma, loss, mourning and suffering from people who had not left the war behind, had not left their country behind. Were convinced that they could go back one day; that communism would end and they could take their country back again. I just grew up with this sense that the war was not over, that Vietnamese people remain deeply influenced by it and were not going to forget it. And that even more than that, the stories that we knew, and that I heard, were stories that were not being heard by other Americans who preferred to hear stories of their own telling about their American War in Vietnam rather than the war or the history that the Vietnamese people knew.
Jon: What Americans know about Vietnam comes, I think, mostly from movies, and movies about Vietnam play a memorable part in your novel, The Sympathizer. Our protagonist goes to the Philippines to work with the Vietnamese extras in a gigantic Hollywood film about the war. This seems to be Apocalypse Now. When did you first see Apocalypse Now?
Viet Nguyen: I first saw Apocalypse Now when I was probably 10 or 11 on the VCR. I was much too young to see this movie, I think it really scarred me. There’s a scene in the movie where the American sailors massacre a sampan full of innocent civilians, and even years later when I would tell people about this movie and this scene, I would find that my voice would tremble with rage and anger because I’d been effected so deeply by it. I had been effected so deeply by it because, on the one hand, it’s a great work of art. I really admire this movie, I actually loved to watch it. But on the other hand, the only place for someone like me in that movie is the person who’s going to be killed, the gook.
Viet Nguyen: This was symbolic for me, in general, of how it is that Americans remembered their war in Vietnam. They remembered it as a tragedy, as a kind of a dark conflict that was really about Americans fighting Americans. It’s a civil war in the American soul, and the Vietnamese people were simply extras in this American drama. Of course, I knew that that was not true. I knew that this war was at least as much about us as it was about Americans given that, while 58,000 Americans had died, 3 million Vietnamese people had died. I felt that it was so important to me to understand more about this war and this history, about what it meant to both Americans and Vietnamese, and to one day try to tell a story myself.
Jon: We’re speaking with Viet Nguyen about his wonderful new novel, The Sympathizer. Our protagonist in The Sympathizer keeps coming back to one sentence, especially in this section about going to the Philippines to work with extras on what must be Apocalypse Now. That is the sentence, quote, “They cannot represent themselves; therefore, they must be represented,” close quote. If we invited listeners to call in to identify that, I am sure our switchboards at KPFK would be full of Marxists theoreticians who know that that line comes from Marx’s book, The Eighteenth Brumaire, about the 1848 revolution. What does it mean to our protagonists in the context of the Vietnam War, it’s aftermath, Hollywood movies; “They cannot represent themselves; therefore, they must be represented”?
Viet Nguyen: Well, he understands that the act of representation is partially about storytelling. That in the American imagination there all these dark populations out there who cannot represent themselves through the act of storytelling; therefore, Americans have to tell their story for them, which is very much how the Hollywood version of the Vietnam war has taken place. But there’s also a political meaning to that, as well, which is that because these people cannot represent themselves, Americans must go there, to these foreign places, to these dark places, and take over and run the show for themselves. So there’s a distinct connection between the way that Americans see the world and tell stories about the world and the way that Americans justify their intervention overseas. So situating all of this in a Hollywood movie about the Vietnam War condensed all of these issues into one episode.
Jon: Our protagonist has his doubts about working on a Hollywood film, but his handlers back in communist Vietnam tell him, “Remember Mao at Yunnan.” That’s all he’s told, those four words, but he knows exactly what it means. What does it mean?
Viet Nguyen: Well, in that great talk that Mao gives, he says that artists and writers have a role to play in the revolution, and the role that they play is to create art that will both speak to the masses but also challenge and elevate the masses at the same time. He’s saying this in a very particular, obviously communist, moment to encourage everyone, including artists, intellectuals and writers, to support the revolution and to use their art as revolutionary weapons. This would have a really devastating consequence in the long run because artists, intellectuals and writers who deviated from this program would wind up in reeducation camps or in self-criticism sessions and be forced to toe the party line, quite literally.
Viet Nguyen: That actually is part of what happens in the novel, but I also wanted to take away from what that speech is saying and present the idea that, in fact, this novel itself aspires to do part of what Mao is talking about, which is to take a very serious, very complicated, very conflicted political history and tell an entertaining story about it. And, by so doing, get that out to a large audience that will be, hopefully, thrilled and entertained by the story, but also be forced or encouraged to think about the political issues that are being raised in it.
Jon: How does our a protagonist understand this in the context of going to work on a Hollywood film?
Viet Nguyen: Well, he thinks what he’s doing is intervening in an act of propaganda. He sees Hollywood as being the propaganda arm of the American war machine. So in fact, Hollywood to a certain extent is doing what Mao is arguing for except for, from a Maoist perspective or communist perspective, reactionary purposes. So the best that our protagonist can do, because he doesn’t control the means of production, is to try to insert himself into this machinery to try to tinker with it, to try to make changes, to try to make it better. The tragicomedy of this particular episode is that he actually only makes things worse.
Jon: He only makes things worse. We’re speaking with Viet Nguyen. His novel about Vietnam and the aftermath of the Vietnam War is called The Sympathizer. The Sympathizer has been compared to the novels of Jon le Carré and Graham Greene. I can see that, but I wonder if Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man isn’t closer to what you’re trying to do.
Viet Nguyen: All those figures were important to me, but you’re right. Ralph Ellison was very much on the forefront of my mind. Anybody who’s read Invisible Man remembers the opening of that novel will certainly hear echoes of it in the first paragraph of this book that I read, and that’s very deliberate on my part. I did think of my character as somebody like the invisible man, and somebody like the character in Dostoevsky’s Notes From the Underground, which Ellison also drew on. That’s what I set out to do, but by the time I finished the book, I realized that I was also departing to a considerable degree from Ellison’s vision. As much as I respect and admire Invisible Man, I do disagree with it on at least one point, which is that by the end of the book, what Ellison really wants to affirm is the great power of the great American novel and of the great American story, and the place that black Americans can occupy in that.
Viet Nguyen: I’m actually much more critical of that type of a narrative. Partially because this book, unlike Invisible Man, is not set only within the United States but is an international novel that takes into account how it is that the things that the US did overseas impacts the things that happen to people within this country. It also takes into account the fact that there was an actual communist revolution that this war deals with. I didn’t simply want to tell a story that said, “America’s great, the liberal American story is what we need to turn to, and communist revolution is bad,” which is what would be expected of someone like me writing in the United States. So the ending of the novel is very important in terms of challenging these kinds of expected outcomes in the story.
Jon: Yeah. I want to talk about the ending of the novel, but not for a minute yet. I want to pick up on what you said here about the search for the great American novel and how you don’t want to be part of that. In fact, you’ve suggested in other interviews that it’s equally important to search for the great anti-American novel, and I would like to nominate The Sympathizer for that title. Is that okay with you?
Viet Nguyen: I think that’s fine by me. I think I might offend a lot of people. Maybe not your listeners in particular, but a considerable amount of the American population would not take kindly to the idea of an anti-American novel. But one of the things that I mentioned in this novel is that being anti-American is not so bad because if there’s one thing Americans like to be, they like to be at the center of the story. So of course they would prefer to be at the center of the great American story, but they’re actually okay with being at the center of the anti-American story too, and anti-American already includes American.
Viet Nguyen: That is one way to understand how Americans have told stories about the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Much of the literature and the film that’s been produced has depicted the Vietnam War from the American point of view as being a very negative experience in which Americans have done terrible things. So on the one hand, there has been some capacity for Americans to recognize the atrocities that have happened and the flaws of American behavior, but what that also means is that the American experience is still being put at the center. Americans would still rather be the antiheroes of their own story than to be the extras.
Jon: Okay. We’re speaking with Viet Nguyen, N-G-U-Y-E-N, about his novel, The Sympathizer. It’ll be at the LA Times Festival of Books at USC this Saturday at 4:30.
Jon: The first part of the novel is this intense, memorable scene of what Americans call the Fall of Saigon and the efforts of supporters of the Saigon government to get out of there while they can. The second part is all about life in the United States, the exile community and the dreams of returning. Then, towards the end, there’s a long, long section about torture. Of course, today, when we think of torture, we think of Gitmo and American torture chambers elsewhere in the world, but that’s not where… although you must’ve been thinking about that, that’s not what this is about.
Viet Nguyen: Well, I think it’s really difficult to write about torture now, anywhere, without thinking about what we’ve been doing contemporaneously in the United States. When I was researching this part of the book, what I learned from reading Alfred McCoy’s A Question of Torture, which is a really powerful short book on that issue, is that everything that we’ve been doing in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere comes out of techniques that the CIA developed in the 1950s, which it then practiced in Vietnam in the 1960s and then perfected in Central America in the 1970s. So there’s a long history of the role that torture has played in American intelligence practices that I wanted to bring into this book. By the end, there is torture being used, it’s being used by communists, but ironically, they’ve taken their cues from the CIA’s own manual on torture practices, a manual that would foreshadow things that would happen in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
Jon: The end of The Sympathizer, I think it’s the last page, our protagonist says he is, quote, “A revolutionary in search of a revolution,” close quote. Now, I take that as a kind of a happy ending. Is that okay with you?
Viet Nguyen: That’s about as happy as I could get myself to be at the end of the book. Again, this is a response to Ellison. Ellison ends his book… after his invisible man has tried to become a revolutionary and discovers that the revolution has betrayed him, he turns back to the idea of individualism and by saving oneself, you can save the rest of society. That we’re all on our own, basically. That narrative really, again, affirms some really core American beliefs about liberal individualism. I didn’t want my book to end that way, even if it is critical of the communist revolution. I wanted the book to affirm the idea that revolutions still need to happen, that justice is the question that most interests the narrator and myself, and that even if one manmade revolution has failed, that doesn’t mean that the idea of revolution is over.
Jon: The Sympathizer. Let’s call it the great anti-American novel. Viet Nguyen, thanks for this amazing book, and thanks for talking with us today.
Viet Nguyen: Thanks so much, Jon. It’s been a pleasure.