Sunday, June 21, 2015

Moral Quandaries in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer

The American Embassy in Saigon, on April 29, 1975. (Photo by Neal Ulevich)

“This fantasy of Americans as rescuers has re-emerged in Rory Kennedy’s documentary Last Days in Vietnam … telling a story that is good for the American soul. The movie depicts how, in the final hours of American involvement in Vietnam, a handful of courageous Americans initiated the rescue of 130,000 South Vietnamese allies from the clutches of evil communists…It was exactly what I thought it was going to be, American good intentions get reaffirmed. Although Vietnamese faces end the film, they are just victims who are grateful to Americans.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen on the Last Days in Vietnam (2014) 

When I first saw Rory Kennedy’s must-heralded documentary, Last Days in Vietnam, I was moved by the humanitarian and heroic impulses of Americans, notably the former US Army officer, Stuart Herrington, to rescue as many as possible South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians on planes, ships and helicopters. These efforts are presented as saving them from an impending bloodbath perpetrated by barbaric hordes from the North. But as I watched the film more carefully and read reviews by Vietnamese who in 1975 were young children, I began to harbour misgivings about the film. There is little in the way of context. Although the film rightly mentions the Communist massacres at Hue, it says nothing about the successive corrupt South Vietnamese regimes that enjoyed no public support, that foisted on its people, for example, the vastly unpopular Strategic Hamlet program that relocated peasants to areas where they would be isolated from the Viet Cong, supposedly protected by militias and barbed wire. Nor does the film allude to the American carpet bombing or the effects of Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide that continues to afflict Vietnamese (and some Americans) suffering from mangled limbs, physical and psychological disorders. We sometimes forget that four million people died, half of them civilian. It does not help that the film frequently shows a map with a spreading, blood-red stain to indicate communist advances, akin to the creeping communism commonly depicted in Cold War-era graphics. And if the Vietnamese are not invisible, they only appear as uniformly grateful.

A much more complex and nuanced perspective about Vietnam and American culture can be found in the dazzling debut novel, The Sympathizer (Grove Press, 2015) by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. When the author was four years old, he escaped from Vietnam with his parents and brother in 1975 and has written movingly about that time and growing up in California.

The ambiguity of his life experiences are transmuted into his art and are clearly stated at the beginning of his novel: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds,” enabling him to “see any issue from both sides.” As a result, the unnamed narrator is torn apart by his guilt working for both the CIA and as a spy for North Vietnam since his friends, including his best friend Bon, were soldiers in the South: “They were my enemies, and yet they were also brothers-in-arms.” His divided loyalties may be explained by the circumstances of his birth: he is a product of a Vietnamese mother and a French Catholic priest. The novel is structured in the form of a confession addressed to “my dear Commandant” written and rewritten in an “isolation cell.” The circumstances under which he is imprisoned are not revealed until late into the novel. Apart from the beginning and the last section of the novel, one of its most surprising elements is the humour that is sprinkled throughout.

The opening pages may remind readers of the documentary Last Days in Vietnam as Nguyen captures the panic and terror of the last days of April 1975 in chaotic Saigon, but there are salient differences. Apart from Claude, a long-time operative of the CIA, we are hearing only Vietnamese voices. The narrator, the trusted aide to the South Vietnamese General who is head of the National Police that includes its brutal secret police, is assigned responsibility for choosing those from among his boss’s staff and extended family who will be on the plane that will transport them out of the country. As he agonizes over this task – “Every stroke of my pen through a name felt like a death sentence” – he reads reports that civilians fleeing the cities that have fallen to the Communists are being shot in the back by their own soldiers (a detail not noted in the documentary). The Captain, as he is known, knows his handler will be pleased with this news, but he can only feel sympathy for those civilians, not exactly the typical quality for a mole. As the entourage arrives at the airport, the terror becomes more intense and the narrator’s ambiguity deepens as Communist bullets and bombs strafe the site causing terrible bloodshed and grief to individuals close to him before the rest of them make a harrowing escape.

Once the narrator, who speaks perfect English having studied literature in 1960s hippie California, is resettled in California and living among the Vietnamese community, he continues to spy on the ruthless General and file reports through coded letters to his handler, his childhood friend, Man. To protect his cover, the narrator participates in two murders of American Vietnamese and feels guilty since he knows that they are not spies. Notwithstanding these two violent episodes – which Nguyen grippingly describes – the Captain expends most of his energy turning his barbed wit on the grandiosity of American culture, and its unexamined assumptions about Western colonialism that include stereotypes of Asian people. “Although every country thought itself superior in its own way,” he asks rhetorically, “was there ever a country that coined so many ‘super’ terms from the federal bank of its narcissism, was not only superconfident but also truly superpowerful, that would not be satisfied until it locked every nation of the world into a full nelson and made it cry Uncle Sam?” Travel books characterizing refugees as boat people is an epithet that surely might more accurately describe “a newly discovered tribe of the Amazon River or a mysterious, extinguished prehistoric population whose only surviving trace was their watercraft.” His satirical targets also include a right-wing congressman who can only speak in self-serving, patriotic clichés as he courts the South Vietnamese diaspora, and an academic, whose monograph on Asian Communism is stacked with patronizing howlers. Among them:
The Vietnamese peasant will not object to the use of air power, for he is apolitical, interested only in feeding himself and his family. Bombing his village will of course upset him, but the cost is outweighed ultimately by how airpower will persuade him that he is on the wrong side if he chooses communism, which cannot protect him.
 Viet Thanh Nguyen (Photo by Matt Meindl)
But the novel’s comic set piece, permeated with black humour, takes readers to the Philippines, where the narrator has been hired by an American movie director as a technical consultant to round up hundreds of Vietnamese extras from a refugee camp to play savage Viet Cong, ironically, the very people from whom they escaped. For the money they will allow themselves to be represented as torturers who die in the film’s war scenes. The imaginary film is a not-so-subtle parody of Apocalypse Now and its director, dubbed The Auteur, a caricature of Francis Ford Coppola, who is depicted here as a blowhard and a latent racist, regarding the Vietnamese only as invisible types rather than individuals with a voice. Over the objections of our narrator, the Vietnamese will be given no individuality or dialogue. The Captain laments that “the Movie was just a sequel to our war and a prequel to the next one that America was destined to wage.” Called The Hamlet, a reader can only wonder whether this title is Nguyen’s tongue-in-cheek reference to the reallocation program mentioned above. We are also treated to the hilarious spectacle of ‘The Thespian,” the “actor’s actor,” who insists on remaining in character throughout and refuses to shower in seven months of shooting before his much re-filmed death scene in which he groans, “The whore! The whore!” Not too difficult to figure whom he represents. Having seen the documentary on the making of Apocalypse Now, the superior Hearts of Darkness (as has the author), I suspect that Nguyen’s portrayal of the well-known late actor is less a parody and more an accurate representation of him.

The torture scenes in the movie segue back to the war itself and to an extended examination of torture that occurred in the Phoenix program directed in the novel by the CIA spook, Claude, and to the use of psychological terror that the Vietnamese used in their brutal re-education camps. The blending of these scenes, albeit years apart, which illustrates how one can mirror the other, sometimes takes on a phantasmagorical quality. The tone of this last section is darker and agonizingly painful to read after the narrator joins what he feels will be likely a suicide mission. Yet, he feels a responsibility to try to save the life of his childhood friend, Bon, who worked for the CIA and has personal motives for joining this mission to kill Communists. This futile foray into Vietnam is the result of a quixotic attempt undertaken by a ragtime army assembled by the General and assisted by the Congressman to overthrow the Communist regime, a Vietnamese counter-revolutionary attempt that resembles the Cuban Bay of Pigs fiasco. The interrogation scenes of the sleep-deprived narrator recall Costa Grava’s film The Confession. The narrator’s interrogation also carries a contemporary relevance that is hard to miss. But I think that Nguyen is more interested in repudiating the folly of adherents, consumed by revolutionary zeal – that the revolution, for which the narrator has staked his life and betrayed others, has no qualms about betraying him – and that friendship is thicker than ideology. What makes Nguyen’s The Sympathizer so refreshing is that it is willing to challenge both American pretensions and the harm that can ensue from military intervention, and to expose the seduction and consequences of ideological purity that can assail the most idealistic dreamers who, as the narrator says at the end, were “doped by an illusion.” At the same time, since we are reading a confession, it is not surprising that the narrator still expresses his faith in revolution: “We cannot be alone! Thousands more must be staring into darkness like us, gripped by scandalous thoughts, extravagant hopes and forbidden plots. We lie in wait for the right moment and the just cause, which, at this moment, is simply wanting to live.” Whether the narrator believes what he has written is hard to say. What is more certain is that the author and the narrator are not identical.

(photo by Keith Penner)
– Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. His website is

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