What is more precious than freedom and independence?
The answer: nothing.
But this has a sardonic double meaning; and that’s key to The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel of the Vietnam War and its aftermath.
Nguyen is a Vietnam-born American. The book’s narrator (never named) is the bastard child of an American priest and a Vietnamese girl. Toward war’s end he is a close aide to a South Vietnamese general in charge of the police. But the narrator is the “sympathizer” of the title; i.e., a Communist sympathizer. More, he is actually working for the other side, as a mole.
Nguyen is a wonderful writer. Not just a good story-teller; the prose itself scintillates. Sentences are not given flatly, but usually with a wry kick. At one point he refers to beer tasting like baby’s piss. A lesser writer would just say piss; but that’s banal; comparing beer to baby’s piss is not. (Though even if one knows the taste of piss, would the particular flavor of a baby’s be recognizable?)
There is a delicious sex scene between the narrator in youth and a squid (destined for dinner). It recalled the episode in Portnoy’s Complaint with a piece of liver. I’ve always liked liver; I’ve never liked squid. But Thanh’s writing was so erotically charged it made me want to give squid another try.
And how about this passage:
“The Chinese might have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in lasciviousness, he was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb ‘to cleave,’ which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman’s cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity. The double meaning was also present in how cleavage separated a woman from a man and yet drew him to her with the irresistible force of sliding down a slippery slope. Man had no equivalent, except, perhaps, for the only kind of male cleavage most women truly cared for, the open and closing of a well stuffed billfold.”
This meditation (prompted of course by the narrator’s experiencing “the gravitational pull” of a woman’s display) continues further. And its cynicism is wholly characteristic. The book is mainly about politics, not sex, and reads very cynically indeed.
In April of 1975 the Communists suddenly win the war. Despite actually working for them, the narrator stays with the General and his entourage escaping Saigon, for America, by air. That chaotic evacuation is evocatively described. On that day I happened to be typing away on a fantasy novel, coincidentally with a comparable episode. The radio was on. And a sentence I heard on a newscast slid, perfect and unaltered, directly into my manuscript, as though I was taking dictation. One of life’s weird moments. (The novel, Children of the Dragon, was published by Avon in 1978.)
Nguyen’s narrator, after coming to America, gets involved as a consultant on Vietnamese authenticity for an unnamed “auteur” making a movie, shot in the Philippines, scathingly satirizing Francis Ford Coppola and Apocalypse Now. Meantime, he also continues doing dirty work (including killings) for the General, as the latter organizes an expatriate army to reinvade Vietnam (this really happened); while the narrator continues as a spy, reporting everything to his Communist superiors. Eventually (against their wishes), he joins the General’s ragtag force on its doomed mission, is promptly captured, and despite his mole role he’s sent to a “re-education” camp.
And so we get the obligatory “enhanced interrogation” scenes. He isn’t exactly tortured. Not exactly. But this section of the book is not for the squeamish.
I’ve mentioned cynicism. That certainly pervades the Apocalypse Now sequence. But unsurprisingly the main canvas for cynicism is America’s war role itself. Yes, that history is not entirely glorious. War is hell, and a lot of bad things happen in war. But I remain a rare unrepentant defender of our Vietnam involvement. We sought to help an independent nation, with at least some degree of freedom, against aggression aiming to impose a Communist tyranny. The justness of that cause was borne out by the aftermath, in which two million Vietnamese “boat people” risked their lives, and many lost them, trying to escape what we fought to prevent.
So I found it grating to read the narrator’s words, so full of corrosive cynicism toward America. “After all,” he says, “nothing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence.” Those words again. And your standard empty anti-capitalist blather. Set against misplaced romanticism about the Communist cause. It was easy to infer that the author was using the narrator as a vehicle to express his own viewpoint.
But not so fast. The narrator is not the author, but a character, and ironically enough, he does get re-educated in that re-education camp. The reality behind the slogans peeps through for him (and the reader). At long last, he grasps the subversive alternate meaning to the catch-phrase formula: nothing is more precious than freedom and independence — communist style. He realizes that’s what the war was fought for — for nothing.
He becomes a boat-person himself, rating his chances of survival at fifty-fifty. But those, he decides, “are excellent odds, as the chances of one ultimately dying are one hundred percent.” (Something we should always remember.)
And finally, he declares, “We remain that most hopeful of creatures, a revolutionary in search of a revolution.”