Peter Pierce reviews Viet Thanh Nguyen’s three latest works, Nothing Ever Dies, The Sympathizer, and The Refugees, for The Australian.
Last year, not long after the publication of his Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen released a nonfiction analysis, impassioned yet forensic, of ‘‘Vietnam and the memory of war’’. This book is titled Nothing Ever Dies. Its cover describes the material drawn on as ‘‘a kaleidoscope of cultural forms — novels, memoirs, cemeteries, monuments, film, photography, museum exhibits, video games, souvenirs’’.
Thus novels by Vietnamese Americans are examined, together with graveyards in the US where ‘‘dead victors’’ (but not the soldiers of the vanquished south) are memorialised, ‘‘a map of Cambodia composed of human skulls’’, Maya Lin’s once controversial but now loved ‘‘black wall’’, the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, ‘‘those deformed foetuses, victims of Agent Orange’’ in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now, ‘‘a modern Grimm’s fairy tale where napalm lights the dark forest’’. Entrepreneurs in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, offer not only an Apocalypse Now bar, but a Heart of Darkness one too.
Nguyen, who teaches English and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, describes himself as ‘‘born in Vietnam, but made in America’’. “I count myself among those Vietnamese dismayed by America’s deeds but tempted to believe in its words.’’
What he strives for is an ‘‘ethical work of just memory’’, wherein an ethic of remembering others, ‘‘the distant and the demonised’’, the one-time enemy, can transform ‘‘the more conventional ethics of remembering one’s own’’. He wants to fight — in a path he evidently had to clear to allow for his emergence as a novelist — ‘‘for the imagination, not for the nation’’.
In his professional capacity, and through an unswerving empathy, he is aware of how each ‘‘racially defined ethnic group in the US gets its own notable history’’. For blacks this is slavery and the plantation, for Latinos, barrios and the border, while ‘‘Vietnamese Americans get the war’’. Dealing with this burden was the task not only of Nothing Ever Dies, but of the novel that preceded it, and for which it prepared, and now for a new volume of short stories, The Refugees.
The Sympathizer is among the finest novels of the war, along with Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato (1978), Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers (1979; filmed by Stanley Kubrick as Full Metal Jacket), Stephen Wright’s Meditations in Green (1983) and, from the other side, Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War (1994). Ninh was one of 10 survivors in the 500-strong Glorious 27th Youth Brigade. And, of course, there is Graham Greene’s seminally anti-American novel, still hawked in the streets of Saigon, The Quiet American (1955).
Nguyen’s unnamed narrator in The Sympathizer has written a thesis on Greene’s novel at the quiet Californian college where he studied for years before his return to Vietnam. He left fluent in English and with an intimate knowledge of his country’s enemy, for instance of ‘‘that omnipresent American narcotic, optimism’’. As he introduces himself in the book’s first line: ‘‘I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.’’ While working for the General as a Captain in South Vietnamese intelligence, he is in fact a communist agent whose task after the shocking shambles of the flight from Saigon is to spy on his expatriate community in the US.
That escape is the first of three superbly orchestrated long sequences in The Sympathizer. Each is part of the confession that his captors extract from the Captain after he has joined, or infiltrated, a reconnaissance party back into Vietnam through Laos in the expatriates’ forlorn hope of recapturing their lost country. They are sickened with drinking ‘‘the black tea of exile’’.
In describing the escape from Saigon, the Captain concocts a brew of equal parts horror and hilarity. As North Vietnamese divisions circle and shell the airport, ‘‘the marine with the bullhorn would mumble like a throat cancer victim with a mechanical larynx’’ to marshal the evacuees. On the cue of White Christmas played over loudspeakers, the Captain joins the General, his family and entourage on the last plane out of the airport. A deracinated life awaits him in a country where the majority ‘‘regarded us with ambivalence if not outright distaste, we being living reminders of their stinging defeat’’.
While the General runs a liquor store on Hollywood Boulevard, he also consorts with such right-wing figures as the Congressman, a Green Beret in Vietnam in 1962-64. From him we learn of a film to be called The Hamlet, made by a famed director known here, as many are, by his epithet — the Auteur.
Summoned to the director’s hilltop mansion to advise on the script, the Captain is shown the door after complaining that neither the Montagnard tribespeople nor the Vietcong who are trying to exterminate them are allowed to speak in their own languages.
After the Auteur has second thoughts, the narrator finds himself on the set in The Philippines: ‘‘I was again in a country with its malnourished neck under a dictator’s loafer.’’ The cast includes the Idol (a former singer), the Thespian (a method actor who ceases to bathe while in role) and ‘‘the Asian Everyman’’, Yoon, who hopes this latest of his many cinematic death scenes will finally win him an Oscar. Along with much else, this alarming tour de force is Nguyen’s acridly funny riposte to Coppola and to Hollywood as part of the American military-industrial complex (business analysed more explicitly in Nothing Ever Dies).
The third act of The Sympathizer is the most harrowing. The General’s motley pre-invasion party is ambushed after it crosses into Vietnam. The Captain finds himself forced not only to write the confession that comprises most of this book, but to submit to the torture of sleep deprivation. The Commandant has a chilling consolation for him: ‘‘Of course you cannot sleep. Revolutionaries are insomniacs, too afraid of history’s nightmare to sleep.’’
A further, terrifying but in some ways inevitable encounter awaits, with an almost literally ‘‘faceless man’’, the Commissar. The book’s last part, which is about the possibility of the narrator making a second, this time ‘‘watery departure from my country’’, has the calm of a deceptively lulling dream. Nguyen’s narrative power and imaginative control never flag in a novel that is full of complex treacheries and reckonings, business both comic and mortal.
A good deal of this earlier material is revisited in the eight short stories of The Refugees. There had been another Pulitzer prize-winning account of the Vietnamese diaspora after the war. This was A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992) by Robert Olen Butler, who served in US military intelligence in Vietnam in 1969-71 and who wrote of refugees in Louisiana, rather than the Little Saigon of Orange County, California, which is Nguyen’s focus. (Butler is discussed in Nothing Ever Dies.)
The first of Nguyen’s stories, Black-Eyed Woman, shows how adept he in the shorter as well as the longer form of fiction. Like others in this collection, the narrator has escaped from Vietnam in a perilous boat journey. During this one, his brother was killed by pirates. Twenty-five years later, the survivor is a ghostwriter who lives with his mother, a gnomic commentator on disaster and the ill luck of those who scorn superstition.
Her stories are full of ‘‘mournful revenants’’ — ghosts of her own people and of soldiers of invading armies. Yet as the narrator, who must endure the return of a ghost, remarks: ‘‘As they haunt our country, so do we haunt theirs.’’
The stories span several decades after the fall of Saigon in 1975. News from Vietnam reaches the refugees in the US, whether of the re-education of ‘‘puppet soldiers’’, banishment to a New Economic Zone, or the life for relatives left behind of ‘‘no food and no money, no school and no hope’’. They depend in part on remittances from those who make a living in the strange new world, for instance the family in War Years who run a grocery store where Vietnamese ‘‘could buy the staples and spices of home, jasmine rice and star anise, fish sauce and fire-engine red chillies’’.
The family is extorted by another expatriate to contribute money for ‘‘a guerilla army … preparing to launch a counter-attack on unified Vietnam’’. This was the General’s scheme in The Sympathizer, depicted here from below, as a desperate delusion harboured by those who have lost so much.
In I’d Love You to Want Me, Professor Khanh, another to have escaped by sea, on a ‘‘rickety fishing trawler’’, has islands of preserved memory, but knows that he is slipping into dementia.
If this is a curse for him, it is a blessed forgetfulness denied to most refugees.
In The Americans, a former B-52 pilot (he is black, his wife Japanese) comes reluctantly to a country about which ‘‘he knew next to nothing except what it looked like from 40000 feet’’. Now his daughter, who teaches there, declares that ‘‘I have a Vietnamese soul’’. Events unfold uncomfortably, intractably, and not without humour.
The weather of The Refugees, for all the terrible stories that are told within it, is milder than that of The Sympathizer. To the stories Nguyen brings a humane but unillusioned sense of how Vietnamese and Americans are still, as they have been for more than half a century, victims of their conjunction. Each side ‘‘gets the war’’.
Peter Pierce’s books include Australia’s Vietnam War and Vietnam Days: Australia and the Impact of Vietnam.
By Viet Thanh Nguyen
Hachette, 272pp, $32.99 (HB)
Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War
By Viet Thanh Nguyen
Harvard University Press, $310pp, $60 (HB)
By Viet Thanh Nguyen
Corsair, 371pp, $22.99