Friday, 12 May 2017

The Sympathizer - Viet Thanh Nguyen

( Pulitzer Award for Fiction - 2016 )

Written in a language, which at times rises to a level enthralling linguaphiles,  this book starts with  the U.S. and some of their anti-communist friends specially in the military getting ready  to leave Saigon. Our narrator, and protagonist is a mole of the communists serving in the Vietnamese Army, serving as an adjutant to a through and through anti-communist General in the Army.  Starting from that time we move across times where the protagonist moves to the U.S. temporarily and works as an assistant to an anthropologist, has a stint in the Philippines assisting directing a movie,  on the subject of the U.S. forces  “humanitarian” efforts against the “inhuman” communists, his return to the U.S. and  from there, his experiences on his futile attempt to infiltrate into Communist Vietnam as part of the General’s plan. 
It will be a disservice to term this book as one on the subject of war, or even a book based on the Vietnam war. There is much, much more here.
Our protagonist is an illegitimate child fathered by a French Priest.  Through the narration, he touches on sensitive subjects such as how he is forever “a bastard” in the eyes of his own people, how in his mind  is “composed of two halves”, which provisions him to  possibility of seeing a situation from the other person’s perspective. To quote – “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds”.
The humour present throughout the book, makes the book that more a page turner. While some instances of humour occupy close upon a page ( e.g. The dead squid.. um, experience ), the others are interspersed in morbid situations (e.g. how his dead victims keep appearing in his vision, with witty comments ).
At a higher level, the book serves as a political commentary on Capitalism, The American Dream, Nationalism and Socialism.  For example look at the exposition  of The American Dream, in his own words:
“Now a guarantee of happiness—that's a great deal. But a guarantee to be allowed to pursue the jackpot of happiness? Merely an opportunity to buy a lottery ticket. Someone would surely win millions, but millions would surely pay for it.”
The books final ruling ( of sorts ) that “..nothing is more precious than independence and freedom...”, itself can be indulged upon rolled over in one’s mind and take off on a tangent in a journey of contemplation.
His critique on his own people, is largely reminiscent of our own lot, minus the American gifts ( and I for am not complaining about that)

“Our society had been a kleptocracy of the highest order, the government doing its best to steal from the Americans, the average man doing his best to steal from the government, the worst of us doing our best to steal from each other.”
The Book is reminiscent on the movie, Apocalypse Now, with all its pain. Apocalypse is influenced by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (“The Horror, the horror”). Yet irrespective of what a wonderful book it was, I felt that the horror so implied was never sufficiently revealed. Apocalypse now went that extra mile to show more of that horror. Is ever the horror so shown was to influence a work of literary fiction, The Sympathizer is that book. The latter 1/5th or so of the book, which elaborates on the torture without pain ( relatively) that the narrator undergoes ( under his own party ), the sleep deprivation which drives him almost to insanity, is expressed in all its’ agony. Here is our narrator’s sleep deprived rant, on the edge of sanity:
“If we forgot our resentment, if we forgot revenge, if we acknowledged that we are all puppets in someone else's play, if we had not fought a war against each other, if some of us had not called ourselves nationalists or communists or capitalists or realists, if our bonzes had not incinerated themselves, if the Americans hadn't come to save us from ourselves, if we had not bought what they sold, if the Soviets had never called us comrades, if Mao had not sought to do the same, if the Japanese hadn't taught us the superiority of the yellow race, if the French had never sought to civilize us, if Ho Chi Minh had not been dialectical and Karl Marx not analytical, if the invisible hand of the market did not hold us by the scruffs of our necks, if the British had defeated the rebels of the new world, if the natives had simply said , Hell no, on first seeing the white man, if our emperors and mandarins had not clashed among themselves, if the Chinese had never ruled us for a thousand year, if they had used gunpowder for more than fireworks, if the Buddha had never lived, if the Bible had never been written and Jesus Christ never sacrificed, if you needed no more revisions, and if I saw no more of these visions, please, could you please just let me sleep?”
This is a book, which looks at the difference between the occidental and oriental. “never the ‘twain will meet”, said Kipling. The pursuit of happiness of America when contrasted against the pure suffering that our unnamed mole’s mother suffered during her short life, is enough to halt the reading and ponder a while.
This is a book that questions on how a man can be in the right when the challenge is the conflict between right and right. The socialist elements of  Vietnam’s foundations  are present throughout the book, and it is questioned repeatedly.
“As Hegel said, tragedy was not the conflict between right and wrong but right and right , a dilemma none of us who wanted participate in history could escape.”
And this is while revealing what a farce, what self-deceiving,  the American Dream is, especially for someone who had been forced to give up what he or she was quite content on, because of a war that the U.S. waged.

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