THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Corsair, 2015)
Vietnam was a war that was technically won by the Viet Cong but which American are reluctant to concede to having lost. The unnamed Vietnamese Army Captain narrating this tale has sympathies with both sides but this only serves to place him between a rock and a hard place.
As a reluctant revolutionary he pleads guilty to the charge of being westernized, admitting: “If longing for riches made me a Occidentalist, I confess to it”. As a uncomitted communist he sees no attraction in the authentic “rustic realities” of village life in Saigon.
While not being blind to the faults of the US, he recognizes that there is more freedom of speech than in his homeland. This, together with air conditioning, an efficient traffic system and the modernist novel are among the other things that he admires. On the down side, he reviles the American knack for putting a positive spin on defeat and for hyping up the benefits of individualism.
All this is apparent in a glamorous movie presentation of America’s heroic failures. The author makes no secret of the fact that ‘The Hamlet’, the film within the novel, is based on Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s celebrated reworking of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’. Movies of this ilk are mocked as products of a highly efficient propaganda machine. Hollywood’s role is bitterly described as “the launcher of the intercontinental ballistic missile of Americanization” and the film is sneered at for being “a sequel to our war and prequel to the next one America was destined to wage”.
Also in the sphere of popular entertainment, vitriol is heaped on country music when it is dismissed as “what lynch mobs must have enjoyed while stringing up their black victims”.
This negativity towards the ‘home of the brave’ didn’t prevent this novel from winning of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. This is a reward for boldness as much as for literary merit in my view. Nguyen’s Oriental voice is distinctive yet too self-consciously surreal and coolly detached for my liking. Perhaps it is because the story is so plainly from an unfamiliar perspective that I found it hard to identify or empathize with his characters.
On the plus side, however, the complexities and contradictions around the theme of national identity both during and after the war are presented with dry/wry humour. The ironic paradox for his fictional anti-hero is that he is found guilty of the ‘crime’ of doing nothing. Sitting on the fence is not regarded as a legitimate option, forcing him to conclude “The only cure for being a bastard is to take a side”