VIET THANH NGUYEN The Sympathizer. Reviewed by Kurt Johnson

Kurt Johnson reviews The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen for The Newtown Review of Books.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel The Sympathizer shows the Vietnam war from a Vietnamese perspective, critiquing Hollywood’s renderings of the conflict in the process.

When Ed Burns and Lynn Novick’s 17-hour documentary The Vietnam War was released in 2017, it rightly received widespread critical acclaim. The work itself is brilliant – humane, heartrending and penetrating. Yet its timing was also impeccable. Although it had been over four decades since the fall of Saigon, the series acknowledged that then, as now, was a time of profound identity crisis for America.

The film’s images — columns of policemen advancing into placard-wielding protesters; bombs leaving the bellies of aircraft to fall on distant hamlets; politicians twisting and contorting to justify another escalation in a protracted foreign war — powerfully articulate the chaos of upheaval when words cannot. Yet the image also reduces and misrepresents. You can track the incarnations of Hollywood’s representations of the ‘first televised war’ from gung-ho pro-war cinema blockbuster (The Green Berets) to its archetypal anti-war complement (Apocalypse Now) and finally to a satire of the entire genre a la Tropic Thunder. While no one would consider this any sort of truth, somewhere along the line, the hashed and rehashed cinematic image outgrew the reality.

The Vietnam War goes some way to document its subject outside the dramatic demands of cinema blockbuster, and also begins to remedy the most glaring omission of that entire process — the failure to represent the Vietnamese in their own war.

Two years before The Vietnam War was released, Vietnamese-American author ‎Viet Thanh Nguyen stepped into the fray with his Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Sympathizer. He is far too savvy to ignore those dominant American representations and simply conjure up a purely Vietnamese version. This would be a bridge too far. Instead he utilises everything that has come before and bends it to his own ends.

The novel begins at the fall of Saigon. We learn early that the unnamed narrator’s identity is fractured by two fault lines: he is the love child of a French Catholic priest and a Vietnamese village girl; and he is also an aide-de-camp for an ARVN general (the General) and a Viet Cong mole. Thus from the outset, identity and representation are never pure or unified.

The opening paints with the palette of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a work the novel explicitly mentions. Explosions boil on the city’s outskirts as the narrator plans the General’s escape from Saigon through a series of clandestine conversations held in smoky villas, punctuated by sips of aged whisky (always neat, of course).

But there is more at stake than the disinterested eye of one of Greene’s foreign spooks — it is clear the narrator will be losing a portion of himself in leaving the country of his birth. Here loss is not just something sentimental. It is rendered through a simple matter of a plane’s capacity — there is a hard limit to the number of seats and a line must be drawn.

The series of goodbyes conjures a sense of finality, a moment in which layers of colonialism, American occupation and the rule of a puppet regime drip-fed on US aid will be swept away in an instant by the Viet Cong’s new world order.

When the General, the narrator and the narrator’s best friend, Bon, together with others who have made the cut, arrive at the packed and frantic airport, it is against a backdrop of impending destruction. They make their flight, but just as the plane is about to take off it is hit by a shell. The survivors race across the runway to another taxiing plane as bullets crack overhead and mortars explode on the tarmac. Bon’s wife is hit and the narrator has to turn around and scoop her up to draw Bon away. Bon and the narrator leap into the cargo hold of the taxiing plane with the body of Bon’s wife at the last possible moment before the plane’s wheels leave the ground.

It is pure Hollywood, right down to the questionable timeline of a plane taxiing on loop until the two have finished their lines. Nguyen is not afraid to tap the high drama of American cinema when he needs to get his point over the line. As a reader you can’t help but fall right into his trap — the opium of action as intoxicating as it is manipulative. Had the author considered something more restrained, say with the narrator staring out the window lost in thought as the plane safely flew over Saigon and above the puffs of flame of exploding artillery shells, The Sympathizer would have been a weaker book.

After a brief stopover in Guam, the narrator and the General, together with a giant mass of refugees, arrive in Los Angeles. Here is the most tantalising portion of the novel, where the mirror is held up to America. Everything ‘exotic’ is turned on its head. LA is a bland never-ending expanse of liquor stores and parking lots. Nguyen somehow finds fruit (albeit sour) in this concrete jungle:

… the mall was bordered by an example of America’s most unique architectural contribution to the world, a parking lot. Some bemoan the brutalism of socialist architecture, but was the blandness of capitalist architecture any better? One could drive for miles and see nothing but parking lots and the kudzu of strip malls catering to every need, from pet shops to water dispensaries to ethnic restaurants and every other imaginable category of mom-and-pop small business, each one an advertisement for the pursuit of happiness.

Where the Vietnam part of the book is threaded through with feeling, memory and purpose, life in the US is numb, amnesic and purposeless. Bon and the General live inherently meaningless lives, now as a security guard and a liquor-store owner. The only slim meaning they find is when they can perform the routine of covert operations — assassinating suspected communist spies and negative elements as they did back home. But the war is already lost. All they have is the habit of destruction learned in war.

The narrator finds a clerical job at Occidental University, where he is forced to weather the most condescending monologues about the ‘Orient’ from a professor who draws a line down a page and asks the narrator to write all his oriental qualities on one side and occidental qualities on the other. The professor has devoted his life to the study of Asia yet cannot move beyond the stereotypes.

The most brilliant portion of the book is when the narrator lands a job as a cultural advisor to a film called The Hamlet. Here is a direct nod to representation in film, and in a clever sleight of hand the narrator includes the communist dialectics of Lenin: ‘They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.’

The narrator believes there is a genuine opportunity to represent the Vietnamese, yet the script’s only Vietnamese roles are either villagers babbling incoherently or the raping and murdering Viet Cong. The barest compromise the narrator can strike from the director is changing the way they scream from ‘AIIIEEEE!!!’ to ‘AIEYAAHHH!!!’

The film is shot in the Philippines, which is characterised as a sort of Americanised Asia. The narrator’s job is little more than ferrying around the Vietnamese extras from scene to scene to allow them to be shot, stabbed and blown up in the various battle scenes.

Of course it was not enough to merely destroy the hamlet and the cave where King Cong hid; to satisfy the Auteur’s need for realistic bloodshed, all the extras also had to be killed off. As the script called for the deaths of several hundred Viet Cong and Laotians, while there were only a hundred extras, most died more than once, many four or five times.

Nguyen pays particular attention to the role that sets play in a movie. The crew are able to construct an extravagantly detailed village – yet all must be blown up in the most spectacular manner. The image is what is most important. After all, America’s capacity for construction is dwarfed only by its appetite for destruction.

The novel’s emotional climax is in the cemetery adjoining the set of The Hamlet. The narrator has carved the name of his late mother on a blank tombstone and is given an hour to say a final goodbye before the hamlet and the cemetery are all blown to smithereens in the film’s final climactic scene. Here is the most poignant comment on representation. Where the tombstone represents his dead mother, a memory lost through displacement and destruction — we have a fake tombstone, a representation of a representation of a memory to again be exploded in service of the money shot. Memory and historical reality fall victim to the never-ending cycle of representation and destruction, a process that leads to nothing but images, smoke and ashes.

Towards the end The Sympathizer begins to lose its bearings as the subtext of representation overwhelms the book’s initially solid scaffolding. Nevertheless Nguyen has already powerfully made his point — that images have an historical weight and momentum. That the delineations of facile entertainment and sober document aren’t as neat as we would like. This is because the mind’s eye stares not at an infinite space but onto a flat black screen in which one image will obscure another. For these reasons representation matters, particularly in regard to history; whereas the original fades over time, its facsimiles can be constantly renewed and reborn with the inevitable loss of meaning and fidelity in the process. It is only with a concerted review of this cultural entropy that we can return to some sort of genuine meaning. This is the very feat The Sympathizer has achieved.

Category: Reviews


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