Saturday, June 13, 2015

What we're reading: Critically acclaimed debut novel

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam and raised in America. He currently teaches English and American Studies at the University of Southern California. In this debut novel, which has received much critical acclaim, he gives us the story, told in a confessional mode, of a nameless protagonist who serves as a Captain in the secret police of the South Vietnamese Army. He is, in fact, a Communist mole. The major action of the story begins around the time of the fall of Saigon in 1975. The Captain is commanded to flee South Vietnam to America with the highly placed South Vietnamese General he serves. His Communist superiors want him to be able to report back to them on any actions the exiled South Vietnamese officers may be plotting abroad to reclaim their country. His loyalty to a childhood friend (a South Vietnamese soldier who has escaped with the novel’s protagonist and does not know his “sympathies”) assume greater importance than his Communist loyalties--his friend’s life is put in danger when he is sent by the General back to Vietnam on a counter-revolutionary reconnaissance mission. The “sympathizer” gets himself assigned to accompany his friend on that mission in the hope that he can somehow save his friend. They are captured and taken to a Communist prison camp. There, the “sympathizer,” who learned in his role with the secret police (under the tutelage of the CIA) how to conduct torture, is now tortured himself by the Communists who he served and who now rule the country.

In addition to the story of the divided political and personal sympathies with which our protagonist must deal, we learn that he is a man of divided sympathies because of the circumstances of both his birth and his cultural upbringing. As the bastard son of a French priest and a devout Asian mother, he is a conflicted cross of East and West, an outcast in his own society without a way to reconcile his divergent racial origins and cultural experiences, unable to form a settled self-identity and to see the world from but one point of view. All of this fracturing makes for a character who is able to comment--trenchantly and satirically--upon the divide and misapprehensions between East and West, between America and Vietnam, even as he himself is ground up both politically and morally in the confrontation.

One reviewer has called The Sympathizer a novel of “breathtaking cynicism,” and in his review in the New York Times, Philip Caputo describes the concluding chapters of the novel as an “absurdist tour de force” that he finds akin to Kafka or Genet. There is certainly much bitterness here, and the satire is scathing. But the The Sympathizer is, fundamentally, a moral novel, one that explores the nature of the personal and existential in relationship to the political, and the choices of action we take when we are witness to---and participants in--- the intimate horrors humans inflict on each other in service of compelling personal and political passions. The themes explored here transcend the story line; they are perennial and universal and, therefore---we dare not forget---contemporary. The daemon that hovers over this ambitious, angry and unsettling novel is Camus.

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