Remembering One Another’s Inhumanity: On Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Vietnam War

This review of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies and The Sympathizer by Judy Tzu-Chun Wu was featured in Volume 52, Issue 1 of the Journal of American Studies.

“All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory” (Nothing Ever Dies, 4). Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, begins his 2016 treatise on war and memory with these words. In the deftly named Nothing Ever Dies, Nguyen identifies the excesses of war in general and most notably the excess of the war named the Vietnam War in the US and the American War in Vietnam. There was excessive violence on the battlefields, which ranged throughout Southeast Asia, exceeding the national borders identified by the naming of the war. The experience of war and the meaning of war also exceeded the official dates of the war, chronologized differently by different historical actors but nevertheless used to conveniently bound war in time. Disregarding these official dates, the perpetrators, survivors, and witnesses of war (Nguyen points out that one can belong to more than one of these categories simultaneously) carry with them the memories and violence of war. They relive and reinterpret the war, fighting it again a second time through memory and memorialization.

This insight that “nothing ever dies” is also at the heart of The Sympathizer, Nguyen’s justly feted novel. Narrated as a confession to the Communist authorities, the novel reveals the experiences and insights of a Communist secret agent who infiltrated the anticommunist ranks. Most of the novel takes place after the fall of Saigon in April 1975, as the protagonist/antihero shares the collective experiences of Vietnamese refugees who flee to the US, experience the daily humiliations of losing one’s country and performing gratitude to a society that both betrayed and rescued them, and aspire to launch a counterrevolution to reclaim their homelands. In this novel, the violence and trauma of war do not die. They are perpetuated by powerful white American male academics, politicians, and moviemakers; by Vietnamese refugee leaders in the US who use intimidation and assassination to control their community politically and seek a different outcome of war; and by the new socialist Vietnamese government who utilize torture to “reeducate” those who oppose them.

Published a year apart, The Sympathizer and Nothing Ever Dies share similarities of insight. In Nothing Ever Dies, Nguyen calls for an ethics that move beyond remembering one’s own humanity and the humanity of others. Instead, he insists upon the importance of recognizing and remembering one another’s inhumanity, of our collective capacity to commit acts of atrocity. The Sympathizer displays this capacity for inhumanity through the array of people the protagonist encounters, as well as through the protagonist himself. He is intelligent, insightful, satirical, capable of deep friendships and emotional attachment, yet also guilty of heinous acts and willing to stand by as he witnesses torture and rape. Nguyen has shared that it was through the process of writing the novel, through the act of empathizing with unsympathetic others, that he was able to develop a new theoretical understanding of war and ethics, the need to recognize not just one another’s humanity but our collective inhumanity.

The difficulty of ethical recognition is compounded by the profoundly uneven ability to create memories and understandings of war. In Nothing Ever Dies, Nguyen critiques the industry of memory, “the material and ideological forces that determine how and why memories are produced and circulated, and who has access to, and control of, the memory industries” (107). Even though the US “lost” the Vietnam War, it has won the battle of memory through the power of cultural production. No other country in the world and no racialized community in the US can match the cultural capacity of the American movie industry, a key component of the industry of memory.

This differential ability to represent the war is illustrated in The Sympathizer. The antihero seeks to change the role of Vietnamese extras for a Hollywood spectacle of the war. In his conversation with “the Auteur,” the protagonist points out,

The lack of speaking parts for Vietnamese people in a movie set in Vietnam might be interpreted as cultural insensitivity … It would be a little more believable, a little more realistic, a little more authentic, for a movie set in a certain country for the people in that country to have something to say, instead of having your screenplay direct, as it does now, Cut to villagers speaking in their own language? Do you think it might not be decent to let them actually say something instead of simply acknowledging that there is some kind of sound coming from their mouths? Could you not even just have them speak a heavily accented English – you know what I mean, ching-chong English – just to pretend they are speaking in an Asian language that somehow American audiences can strangely understand? (132)

As Nguyen points out in the acknowledgments of the novel, “the inspiration for the Movie can hardly be a secret” (384). Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), now the basis of a recently released video game, and other US movies about the Vietnam War focus on the white American male tragedy of war. The Vietnamese are at best inarticulate or heavily accented villains or victims to be killed or rescued or to be rescued by killing them. In fact, during the filming of Apocalypse Now in the Philippines, Coppola cast Vietnamese refugees living in refugee camps, paying them meager sums to portray the bombed, the victimized, and the villains. Some refugees even assumed the roles of Viet Cong villains, the people they fought against during the war. As both Nothing Ever Dies and The Sympathizer point out, the industry of memory perpetuates the violence of war through both the representation and the production of war memories.

How, then, can works like Nguyen’s help us tell “true” war stories? To tell the history and memory of the war through multiple viewpoints and voices? To humanize and to present the inhumane? In Nothing Ever Dies, Nguyen travels broadly, both physically and intellectually. He visits gravesites and memorials in Vietnam and the US. He contemplates the experience of torture and the relationship between torturers and the tortured in death camps in Cambodia. He analyzes cinematic representations of the Vietnam War in the US and South Korea (described as a subempire of the US empire). In other words, Nguyen offers an expansive exploration of the politics of war and memory to capture the geographical and chronological excess of the “Vietnam” war.

Nguyen also discusses the aesthetics and ethics of authors who write about war. As he points out, in the industry of memory, minority authors – those from marginalized communities – are expected to “translate” their people’s experiences to a majority audience who can assume their own humanity and universality but need stories about “others” in order to recognize the humanity of the marginalized. Nguyen has achieved tremendous success winning the Pulitzer for the New York Times best seller The Sympathizer and receiving the honor of being named a National Book Award finalist for Nothing Ever Dies. However, Nguyen also seeks to challenge the power dynamic of being a native informant. As he points out, the constructed audience for The Sympathizer was an unnamed and faceless Communist authority figure. The novel is a story told by a Vietnamese diasporic spy to a Vietnamese in Vietnam. It offers a profoundly scathing yet sympathetic critique both of the Vietnamese refugee community in the US and of American society itself. Through an act of confession, of translating what the protagonist/antihero has experienced in the US and in the old and new Vietnam to a presumed Vietnamese audience in Vietnam, Nguyen has the ability to “hold everyone accountable” (The Sympathizer, 395). He can expose the humanity and inhumanity of dominant Americans, Vietnamese refugees, and socialist Vietnamese revolutionaries and bureaucrats. The English-reading US audience, not explicitly named as the audience but intended as such, has made The Sympathizer a triumph. The novel is slated to be translated and published in Vietnam. It will be interesting to learn how the named audience for the book, as well as members of the South Vietnamese community who read more fluently in Vietnamese, will react to Nguyen’s work.

Nothing Ever Dies and The Sympathizer are both extraordinary works of art. The prose in each, although different in voice and tone, is exquisite. Nguyen excels at framing complex ideas and experiences in concise, poetic language that is both scathing and funny, tragic and ironic. Although a work of nonfiction, Nothing Ever Dies also presents us with a protagonist, the autobiographical experiences and ideas of Viet Thanh Nguyen himself. The protagonist in The Sympathizer is explicitly not autobiographical, but Nguyen’s experiences as a Vietnamese refugee who arrived in the US at the age of four obviously shaped his understanding of the Vietnamese American community, American society, and socialist Vietnam.

Both Nothing Ever Dies and The Sympathizer, either individually or in combination with one another, help us understand that wars never die. They are refought through memory and representation. Nguyen’s work calls for an ethical response from his readers, as perpetrators, victims, and witnesses of war, to recognize the power of memory and forgetting. As Nguyen reminds us, “Haunted and haunting, human and inhuman, war remains with us and within us, impossible to forget but difficult to remember” (Nothing Ever Dies, 19).

Category: Reviews

 

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