Viet Thanh Nguyen offers no sympathy in debut novel (National Post)

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel, The Sympathizer, aims to do what no other Vietnam War book or movie has done before. American artists, he says, address the Vietnamese through their self-absorbed perception; Vietnamese Americans avoid confrontation because they feel a debt to American culture; and in Vietnam, refugees are dismissed as traitors. Nguyen, meanwhile, wants “to criticize everybody.”

Published 40 years after the fall of Saigon, The Sympathizer is a dark satire about a Communist double-agent reporting back to Vietnam about an exiled general in California. It has wowed North American reviewers: The New York Times called it “remarkable,” The Washington Post, “a new classic of war fiction.” But when Nguyen was shopping the manuscript around, many editors wouldn’t touch it. In the current marketplace, he says, literature classified as Asian American is generally “quiet, or if it’s angry, it’s directed at Asia.” His book also directs anger at Americans, “and if you haven’t seen it before, maybe it’s disturbing. The whole question of anti-Americanism is very explicitly discussed. That, by the way, seems to go over well in Canada.”

Sitting in a Toronto hotel lounge, Nguyen looks back happily on the laughter that greeted his reading in Hamilton the night before. His day job is as a professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and he exudes the confidence of a man used to fielding curveball questions from students. His own refugee story is worthy of a film: at age four, in 1975, when his hometown was the first to be overrun by Communists, he fled 120 miles on foot to the nearest port with his mother and 10-year-old brother. “My mother made this life-and-death decision to leave my adopted sister, the oldest, to take care of the family property,” he recalls, “on the assumption that we would come back, because the war had see-sawed back and forth for a long time.” On a boat, they reached Saigon, where their father had been on business.

Parts of his family history are mirrored in The Sympathizer, which opens in April 1975, in chaotic Saigon. The narrator, simply known as the Sympathizer – “the function of Vietnamese people in the Western imagination is to remain nameless, to be steadfast as types,” Nguyen says pointedly – arranges for his General and various officers to be flown out of the country as bombs go off and the airport is attacked. They resettle in California, just as Nguyen and his family did after a stint at a refugee camp in Pennsylvania and a couple of years living with sponsor families who didn’t speak Vietnamese. After this baptism of fire into American culture, Nguyen’s parents opened a grocery store in San Jose; in The Sympathizer, the General and his wife start a Vietnamese restaurant, using the proceeds to fund an attempted coup back home.

The whole question of anti-Americanism is very explicitly discussed

The narrator speaks perfect English, having studied literature in 1960s hippie California, and he’s grudgingly accepted among both Americans and Asians. The ideology of Communism gives him an anchor, but he’s also enthralled by American pop culture, and as a Eurasian (whose father was a French priest), he can see everything from different sides – both a blessing and a curse. His story evokes those of modern-day terrorists who have spent time in the West.

For Nguyen, the terrorist “is the same as the Communist from 50 years ago. Now it seems almost archaic for us to look back on the Cold War and imagine how the communist spy or subversive is so terrifying to people. In 50 years, when we look back, we’ll think it was weird how freaked out we were about radical Islam.”

The Sympathizer‘s narrator is persuasive, and his decisions seem rational, even though they become increasingly disturbing – Nguyen wants to show readers’ own complicity in the violence that is carried out on their behalf. He uses humour to disarm us, at first, and then as a weapon. In one section, the narrator travels to the Philippines to consult on a production resembling Apocalypse Now, shot by a blowhard director. The Asian actors are only too happy to participate in their own debasement for money or the promise of an Oscar: one is even driven to actually torture himself in a torture scene.

From here, The Sympathizer flashes back to the war itself, and it doesn’t shy away from torture and atrocity committed by the Vietnamese – “it’s our war too, and we did a lot of these things ourselves,” says Nguyen. In the aftermath, he notes, American veterans weren’t the only ones to be plagued by violence; Vietnamese Americans were affected too. Nguyen’s parents weren’t fazed when they were both shot during a robbery in San Jose – they’d been held up back in Vietnam by a man with a hand grenade taking hostages. Later, the family was robbed at gunpoint at home. “I knew of many other cases of home invasions by Vietnamese men, against Vietnamese people. These guys grew up in an atmosphere of violence; their fathers were probably soldiers, and that’s all they knew how to do – there was a lot of trauma in the community. The ramifications of the war were ripples through our lives.”

Nguyen’s favourite reviews aren’t from exalted critics but from readers online, especially those who have lived in Vietnam. He knows that under the current regime there, The Sympathizer will never be published officially, so he hopes to commission his own translation and distribute it freely via the Web: “I’m not interested in making money in Vietnam; I want them to read the book.”

Related Post