Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Mekong Review: More Than Just Memory

Patrick Deer reviews both The Sympathizer and Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War for the Mekong Review.

An Australian soldier guarding a suspected Viet Cong at Nui Dat, 1966. Photograph: Tim Page

In a recent interview, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnamese American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen describes his ambition “to be able to write fiction like criticism and criticism like fiction” in reshaping contemporary representations of war and memory. The two books he has published in the past year, his debut novel The Sympathizer and the critical study Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War far exceed this goal. Lucky for us, perhaps, that Nguyen wrote his extraordinary novel before he applied himself to his critical study. The Sympathizer stands on its own as a captivating, often comic and ultimately harrowing war novel that follows its characters from the fall of Saigon, into exile in California, paramilitary adventurism on the border of Laos, capture and torture at the hands of communist cadre in a re-education camp and ending with the refugee plight of the boat people. Its creative power resonates into the first person critical voice of Nothing Ever Dies, offering a liberating, hybrid intervention into what Nguyen calls the “high ground” of recent scholarly debates about popular memory, mourning and melancholy and an evocative chronicle of travels through the “low ground” of sites of memory in Vietnamese America, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

It might be tempting, like the faceless Commissar and impatient Commandant for whom the The Sympathizer’s narrator is writing his fictional confession, to interrogate the novel by the high critical standards for the “ethics of memory” outlined in Nothing Ever Dies. Can Nguyen himself produce a novel that in “remembering one’s own” explores both our humanity and inhumanity, and also remembers the humanity and inhumanity of the other? Narrated through the eyes of its anti-heroic, witty, tormented, drily ironic and sensualist spy, the Captain, The Sympathizer certainly does so. But that would be to miss the point. These are extraordinarily successful and uncompromising forays into different terrains of what Nguyen identifies as the same overpowering, deep-pocketed foe: the industries of US memory that produce the racial stereotyping and exceptionalist trauma-hero myths of Vietnam war films like Apocalypse Now and continue to pigeonhole Asian American writers as producers primarily of ethnic literature. In Nguyen’s fictional narrator and in his critical voice, they have encountered formidable adversaries.

The brilliance of The Sympathizer, now recognised by the Pulitzer committee, is to create an all-too human and highly sympathetic narrator out of a man committed to betraying his South Vietnamese exile community. Throughout, the narrator’s voice remains irascibly and defiantly sceptical, allowing for comic insights at the darkest moments. As the Commandant to whom he is dictating his confession declares in exasperation. “What puzzles me is that you are perfectly reasonably in person, but on the page you are recalcitrant”. Recruited in high school by a North Vietnamese cadre who happens to be his sworn friend, the nameless narrator is sent to the United States for a literary education before he returns to become a mole in the South Vietnamese secret police, rising to the post of aide-de-camp to his larger-than-life commander, the General. While he is a literal bastard, trained in torture and interrogation by the CIA, and in exile a double murderer, he charms his way through the novel. We meet him drawing up the exit plans for the General, his family and entourage that will take them, courtesy of the CIA, into inglorious exile in Los Angeles. This sets up the first of a series of highly accomplished fictional set pieces, as they narrowly escape death on the last transport flight out of Saigon. Here, as elsewhere in the novel, Nguyen balances the first novel’s tendency to cram in everything with moments of restraint and deep pathos. We see some of the same maximalist exuberance as in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth or Junot Diaz’s Oscar Wao, but the first-person narrator remains both disturbed by the violence he instigates and trapped by his treacherous position.

In an ironic nod to Graham Greene, whose novel The Quiet American was the subject of his undergraduate thesis, the Captain is the illegitimate son of a French priest and a young Vietnamese woman. Like Greene’s novels, which as Gabriel García Márquez noted, used dispersed details to great effect, evoking the tropics through the scent of a guava, The Sympathizer mobilises telling details to great effect. But Nguyen’s novel represents both the cityscape of doomed Saigon and the more banal and pungent vistas of the hardscrabble immigrant United States. In the process, the narrative brilliantly undercuts and subverts the triangulated desires of Greene’s late-imperial romance by placing its anti-heroic narrator centre stage. This was the figure of the Vietnamese agent glimpsed only in the margins of The Quiet American, to whom the British journalist Fowler betrayed the young CIA agent Pyle, while they competed over the voiceless, exoticised love object, Phuong. In an act of post-colonial rewriting, The Sympathizer displaces the worldly cynicism of Greene’s unreliable narrator, Fowler, onto a cast of unquiet Americans nursing their defeat in Vietnam: the CIA operative, Claude; a hilariously Reaganesque congressman and the terrifying English ex-pat Orientalist, Dr Richard Hedd, whose magnum opus the Captain uses as a cipher for his coded messages. Far more sympathetic is Nguyen’s representation of the exiled General, futilely fundraising and plotting a private counterforce from the vantage point of his liquor store and his wife’s restaurant. Against this bankrupt older generation, the novel portrays a younger generation of characters struggling to adapt and assimilate, like the Captain, his lover Ms Mori, his best friend Bon, the General’s daughter, Lana, or the hapless journalist, Sonny. They are not quiet, and not quite American.

The surprisingly brief section of the novel that gained The Sympathizer the most initial attention is the Captain’s attempt to infiltrate the movie business by becoming a technical adviser to The Hamlet, a thinly veiled, loosely fictional portrait of Apocalypse Now. Ultimately predictable in the way it refights the war as a victory from the US perspective, in which the US soldiers are victims and trauma heroes and the Vietnamese are represented as barely human, the film cannot but fail to be climactic. This is, as a literary critic might say, over-determined.

This is the point in The Sympathizer that once might expect the most convergence with Nguyen’s excellent critical study, Nothing Ever Dies, which offers a wide-ranging exploration of the struggle for an ethical mode of remembering the Vietnamese experience of the war, of what he calls “just memory”. The book is structured around three larger critical themes. His section on ethics explores the struggle for “remembering one’s own,” based on rich descriptions of his travel to Vietnam’s sites of memory, “remembering others,” which considers the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC as emblematic of the silences and elisions of US popular memory, and “the inhumanities” of war as evidenced in the Cambodian memorialisation of the colossal violence of the Khmer Rouge era. Exploring what he calls the “industries,” Nguyen offers provocative discussions of the way Hollywood and the American “industry of memory” act as an ally of the war machine in its manipulation of the popular imagination of war. Against this, he pitches Korean attempts at “becoming human” by representing their “forgotten war,” and the “asymmetrical” struggle of Vietnamese representations to push back against the global power projections of the American memory industry. In his final section on aesthetics, Nguyen moves into a more speculative, at times polemical, mode of criticism, as he explores the ways in which successive generations of African American writers, like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison (from whom he takes his title), and Vietnamese American writers and critics, like Trinh Minh Ha, Le Ly Hayslip, or Bao Phi, have resisted conventional positioning as ethnic writers. This section also allows Nguyen to offer his own ironic rewriting of Tim O’Brien’s enormously influential, “How to Write a True War Story” from The Things They Carried (1990), which continues to exert a powerful sway on recent US war fiction from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nguyen’s version, “On True War Stories”, is both darker and more tentative. The section offers another wonderful piece of critical travel writing, which both explores the theoretical “high ground” of recent debates about the memorialisation of war and takes his readers into the often very literal “low ground” of Vietnam’s war cemeteries, restored underground wartime tunnels, unofficial museums and kitschy gift shops. The study closes with a melancholy but powerfully critical reflection on whether “just memory” needs to be accompanied by “just forgetting” rather than the “unjust” amnesia against which he has fought throughout the study. A brief epilogue reveals the personal stakes involved in the study, as Nguyen speaks briefly and movingly of his parents’ continuing struggle with exile and dangers of memory.

Whether or not we read Nguyen’s novel alongside Nothing Ever Dies, we soon realise that, compared to the brittle, racist posturing of the film director, the true auteurs in The Sympathizer are characters who vividly defy the mainstream narratives of official war culture. The novel can stand alone, as it shows the melancholy comedy and poignant futility of the general scripting his comeback or the narrator himself trying to wrest control of his narrative from the commandant to whom he is confessing. But its fictional complexity is also enriched by a reading of its non-fiction sequel, Nothing Ever Dies. The marvellous description of the Fantasia revue in an LA night club, with its nostalgic pageant of wartime Saigon, at which the narrator flirts with Lana, the torch-singing daughter of the General, and where his assassin friend Bon finally weeps at the bar for the death of his wife and child, looms much more vividly in the reader’s memory than the fictionalised Hollywood war film. And this is how it should be, Nguyen makes clear, with tremendous sympathy for his own, often inhumane, violent characters.

After the Captain returns to Los Angeles to a call to arms from the General that results in an LA murder and a paramilitary debacle on the Laos border with Vietnam, the sombre, disturbing final chapters of The Sympathizer shift into an Orwellian mode. The fictional frame closes, as we realise the Captain has been writing his confession from captivity in a re-education camp in northern Vietnam. To satisfy the commandant, he must be subjected to the same torture techniques he was trained in by his CIA mentor, Claude. That these are disturbingly like some of the sensory deprivation techniques used more recently in Iraq, Afghanistan and the ‘war on terror’ lends these final sequences a hauntingly austere and placeless quality, as does the captain and Bon’s ultimate escape into the precarious bare life of refugee boat people. But, as we might expect given his intransigent vitality, the narrator survives re-education, more or less intact. He lives, if not to fight another day, to finish telling his story. In his criticism, Nguyen demands that if we are to “remember our own” ethically, we must include both the humanity and inhumanity of ourselves and others. The Sympathizer lives up to this challenge, giving us far more to think about than “just memory”.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer: A Novel. Grove Press, 2015. 371 pages
Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. Harvard University Press, 2016. 374 pages


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