It only looks like another Vietnam War novel. But this one was written by a Vietnamese. Who lived in the US. But worked as an agent for North Vietnam while in the US. This former South Vietnamese Army captain, but known as Captain (because that is the only name you will find for the narrator in the story) worked against Vietnamese in the refugee population who wanted to go back and refight the war. Sounds a bit ungrateful, huh? He didn’t think so, and he will tell you why in this novel. It is a bit long, but is rewarding reading, even with at least three sentences that have more than 350 words in them.
This is not just another Vietnam War novel; on the surface it may look like one with the additional twist that the protagonist is a sleeper agent for North Vietnam hiding inside the Vietnamese refugee population in the USA. The reality and appeal of this novel is much more complex. The entire novel could be read with a focus on the innovative language use, from vocabulary to structure. This alone would be enough to please a reader jaded by overused vocabulary and prose in novels currently “hot.” But this book is more.
There is a substantial ghost story. Not that this is a work of fantasy; it is an acknowledgement that ghosts have a significant part in the belief system of Vietnamese. As an Occidental with a Vietnamese wife, I had a great deal of difficulty in dealing with the significance seriously; my failing to do so is somewhat described by the narrator (hereafter referred to as the Captain) as one of many failings of Occidentals who would understand Asians. The Captain has more problems than my mindset, though. He has killed a few people, some maybe innocent, others perhaps guilty. His victims return in unpredictable visits at sometimes embarrassing times and are always asking questions that cause the Captain to doubt himself.
There is a very realistic portrayal of interrogation techniques, mostly at the strategic level (lasting a long time) but even strategic interrogations have elements of tactical (short term) interrogations. Strange music played loudly, sleep deprivation, temporal confusion; all are elements discussed. Reading this after former experiences with interrogation, these sections were riveting for me. And accurate. The only other honest description of a strategic interrogation I have read was written by John Le Carre in some of his Smiley adventures. Those accurate descriptions were Eurocentric.
The big theme running through the novel is about the Captain’s struggle to establish a self-identity. He resents, throughout the book, being called a bastard. I could not identify with the depths of such resentment; it came up repeatedly in many of the subplot developments. The Captain is a result of a relationship between a French priest and an under-aged Vietnamese girl. Bullied in school, the Captain began to fight, literally, against being called a bastard. Arriving in the US on his mission, he fought to be called Eurasian rather than Amerasian, which many in the US would unthinkingly call him. Then there was the idea that he was a sleeper agent in the US working for the North Vietnamese communists while pretending to subscribe to the beliefs of the defeated, refugee military remnants. In addition to the emotional dualities he felt, there were the pragmatic dualities he had to live with in order to do his job. The Captain spent so much time trying to rationalize varied identities that he never had time to figure out what his end goal personality was.
There is a military story for the war veterans among us, especially toward the latter part of the book. Some of this does not ring true as realistic. A bunch of over the hill military types who had done little for years other than as domestic workers decide to get together, run around in the desert a bit to get into shape, then run to Thailand to buy some weapons so they could begin invading their homeland in a recovery of past days and glories. Talk about a condescending attitude!! Clue: The opposition was on guard for such things.
Culture clash, along with a search for self-identity, appear throughout the story. Rudyard Kipling is quoted as that author notes the impossibility of a reconciliation or a meeting between East and West. Two other excellent writers are noted; Joseph Buttinger and his several books on Vietnam and Francis Fitzgerald with her one controversial prize winner, Fire in the Lake. Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke is not mentioned. That book and this one could be a companion series on views of the war. They are both great, but in different ways.
As a frequent reader, I love language and the clever use of language; this book rates very high for me in terms of language, both vocabulary and structure. I had to resort to Kindle dictionary definitions for cordillera, villanelles, apsara, palimpsest, and chiaroscuro; all gave me pause. I probably need to get out more. And then there were the impossibly long sentences; one I counted was 360 words. Sprinkled liberally with commas and semicolons, the sentences were technically good. They usually happened when the Captain was entering a spell of reminiscence. And here the reader is invited to follow the path remembered by the Captain. If the reader has had any involvement with Vietnam, the reading of these passages will be slow as reader memories return. These memories can be (as they were for me) quite emotional. I provide one here as an example. It describes the stories Vietnamese refugees heard about the ultimate fate of some of their countrymen who did not do well in the USA.
This was the way we learned of the clan turned into slave labor by a farmer in Modesto, and the naive girl who flew to Spokane to marry her GI sweetheart and was sold to a brothel, and the widower with nine children who went out into a Minnesotan winter and lay down in the snow on his back with mouth open until he was buried and frozen, and the ex-Ranger who bought a gun and dispatched his wife and two children before killing himself in Cleveland, and the regretful refugees on Guam who petitioned to go back to our homeland, never to be heard from again, and the spoiled girl seduced by heroin who disappeared into the Baltimore streets, and the politician’s wife demoted to cleaning bedpans in a nursing home who one day snapped, attacked her husband with a kitchen knife, then was committed to a mental ward, and the quartet of teenagers who arrived without families and fell in together in Queens, robbing two liquor stores and killing a clerk before being imprisoned for twenty years to life, and the devout Buddhist who spanked his young son and was arrested for child abuse in Houston, and the proprietor who accepted food stamps for chopsticks and was fined for breaking the law in San Jose, and the husband who slapped his wife and was jailed for domestic violence in Raleigh, and the men who had escaped but left wives behind in the chaos, and the women who had escaped but left husbands behind, and the children who had escaped without parents and grandparents, and the families missing one, two, three, or more children, and the half dozen who went to sleep in a crowded, freezing room in Terre Haute with a charcoal brazier for heat and never woke up, borne to permanent darkness on an invisible cloud of carbon monoxide.
And this is only one such sentence. There are several. The two reference points below are to account for the fact that the quote ran over two Kindle “pages.”
Nguyen, Viet Thanh. The Sympathizer: A Novel (Kindle Locations 1272-1278). Grove/Atlantic, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Nguyen, Viet Thanh. The Sympathizer: A Novel (Kindle Locations 1278-1283). Grove/Atlantic, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Therefore, take the time to read and experience the book. I do not believe it is a one weekend read.