Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Nilanjana S. Roy: Unequal Memories

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel, The Sympathizer, is reviewed by Nilanjana S. Roy for Business Standard India.

Here is one way to know who owns the right to your history, or your nation’s history: do they know how your people scream?

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s protagonist, the sympathiser, “a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces” raises this point when he interviews The Auteur, “the hottest writerdirector in town”. The Auteur is making a movie about Vietnam, with the sympathiser’s countrymen serving as raw material for Hollywood’s strip-mining of the war.

You should at least get the screams right, he suggests to The Auteur.

“Screams are universal,” The Auteur says (he has an Oscar statuette placed casually on his desk.) The sympathiser disagrees. In The Auteur’s script, he has villagers scream like this: AIIIEEEEE!!! “I can assure you this is not how they scream,” the sympathiser says.

By this point in Mr Thanh Nguyen’s novel, you already know a great deal about the sympathiser: he is the bastard son of a teenage girl from a Vietnamese village, and a French Catholic priest. He is called the Captain throughout; he is the trusted aidede-camp of the General, and also a spy. The sympathiser becomes a refugee along with the General, who has deep ties with the Special Branch, and some of the survivors who manage to escape in 1975, resettling in America. This is where real life and fiction overlap: Mr Thanh Nguyen’s family fled first North Vietnam for the South, and then, in 1975, chose exile again to the US when South Vietnam came under the control of the North after the fall of Saigon.

His novel is ostensibly a confession by the Captain, written to a mysterious person known as the Commandant. It includes plenty of violence, of the kind drawn from the snapshots and scribbled police blotter entries of a truly bloody history, as Mr Thanh Nguyen presents the mirror war, the reverse image of the Vietnam that was chronicled by Tim O’Brien, Michael Herr and others.

But this relatively quiet chapter is the key to the big points that Mr Thanh Nguyen makes, both here and in a non-fiction essay on memory, history, war and violence called Nothing Ever Dies.

“Would you like to hear me scream?” the sympathiser asks The Auteur, who is about to commit his country’s history to celluloid immortality? The Auteur nods; the sympathiser screams for him. He writes the correct, authentic way to scream (in the middle of war, in the middle of torture, napalming, all the rest of it) with the Auteur’s Montblanc pen on the cover page of the screenplay: AIEYAAHHH!!!

Guess which scream makes it into the film; guess how much Hollywood cares about authenticity. The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel, won the Pulitzer Prize this year in part because of the way in which he asks the big questions about history and memory: who gets to write it, who is assigned the lead roles or the bit parts, whose memories are erased from the record and whose memories form the record.

In Nothing Ever Dies, Mr Thanh Nguyen contested the claim made by Jimmy Carter, among others, that the Vietnam War had exacted a cost on both sides. Not so, he wrote: “No massacres committed on American soil, no bombs dropped on American cities, no Americans forced to become sex workers, no Americans turned into refugees, and so on.”

Memory is unequal, he continued. “American power means that America can project its memory elsewhere…. No matter where I go outside of Vietnam, if I want to discuss the war, even with intellectuals and academics, I often have to encounter their encounters with American memories.”

One of the reasons why The Sympathizer took such a hold of me, aside from Mr Thanh Nguyen’s ability to spin a complex, often gruesomely funny, set of war stories steeped in betrayal, is because these questions are so relevant to Indian politics today. The erasure of acts of violence, or the aggressive defence of these acts, the insistence on blaming the victims of riots and lynchings rather than blaming the mobs and the instigators, the belief that winning power confers the right to rewrite history on those elected: these are urgent concerns.

Set against these erasures is one fact: the surprising persistence of memory, the tendency of that which was burned to cinders to emerge again from the ashes of the past. You cannot discount the possibility that in time, the silent extras – who are sometimes the true victims, sometimes the losers, more rarely the victors – will finally get to tell their story.

In 2006, a remarkable book took Vietnam by storm, selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Last Night I Dreamed of Peace, the diary of Dr Dang Thuy Tram, had an extraordinary backstory. Dr Thuy Tram had worked in a hospital in Quang Ngai, witnessing some of the worst atrocities of the war from 1967 on, treating soldiers who had been incinerated like meat. She wrote in exasperation of the Communist party – “they fill the path of a bourgeois with spikes and thorns”; with hatred of the Americans – “upon us like bloodthirsty devils”; with wistfulness of her family – “Rain deepens my sadness, its chill making me yearn for the warmth of a family reunion.”

She began writing her diary in 1968; the last entry was made on June 20, 1972. Two days later, she was killed by US soldiers.

Her diary was found by Frederic Whitehurst, an intelligence officer for the US army. Part of his job was to destroy documents written by the Vietnamese. He was about to throw Dr Thuy Tram’s diaries into a gallon drum for burning when his Vietnamese interpreter told him, “Fred, don’t burn this. It has fire in it already.” In 1972, he took the diaries back to the US. It took many decades for him to return her diaries to her family, and to persuade them to publish Dr Dang’s record of life on the Vietnamese war.

Her words, lost for so long, lasted. The history of the Vietnam War may have once been written chiefly by Americans, but as Mr Thanh Nguyen and other writers signal, that time is past. It is surprising, and reassuring, to see that the truth can come to light again, despite all efforts to bury the inconvenient dead.


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