Murder in the Afternoon Book Club to Discuss: THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club meets to discuss Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer on Monday, March 20th, at 1 PM. You can find copies of The Sympathizer on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

9780802124944Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer has left me stunned. This hybrid spy-novel-cum-literary-satire won the Edgar Award in 2015 (which is how I convinced the Murder in the Afternoon Book Club to read it) and the Pulitzer the same year, which should begin a long career of appreciation in highbrow and lowbrow circles alike.

At face value, The Sympathizer is a Vietnam War novel from the Vietnamese perspective, ostensibly the perfect place for American readers to immerse themselves in the Vietnamese experience. Yet what Nguyen does best in the novel is expose hypocrisy. Rather than gently guide his readers into unknown waters, he plunges us into confrontation with our own assumptions, our own prejudices, and our own pompous behavior. While reading it, I felt more blown away by observations about the American character than any points about Vietnamese society.

Nguyen’s main character, his father a French priest and his mother a Vietnamese villager, epitomizes the hypocrisy and messiness of colonialism. Unable to find full acceptance in any one faction due to the ill combination of his birth and politics, Nguyen’s protagonist flees North Vietnam early in life, fearful that his French parentage would lead to his demise at the hands of the anti-colonial communists.

He finds South Vietnam to be an exploited puppet of the United States, and determines to aid the revolution as best he can. Despite his new community’s disdain at his bastard status, he uses his quick wits to gain employment in the South Vietnamese army for a wealthy, skilled military leader. Divided between his politics and his professionalism, as a double agent, the narrator can’t help but do a good job for both his employers, even as he cannot help but critique the gaps between each system’s promises and results.

Able to navigate many worlds, the narrator can always see both sides, and is ill at ease identifying wholly with any one philosophy. He understands the faults and the appeals of North and South Vietnam, the indulgence of capitalism and the righteousness of revolution, the flight to safe refuge and the longing to return home, the charisma of one friend and the suffering of another. He understands that with multiple interventions and endless war, the extreme corruption of South Vietnam and spartan purity of North Vietnam only intensified over time. He points out the absurdities of each system, yet reserves his most powerful critique for the most powerful player.

Nguyen’s sardonic pillorying of America’s loose attachment to its self-professed mores echoes Graham Greene’s bitter English reporter in The Quiet American, yet without Greene’s tendency to exoticize the other. Nguyen not only rejects previous portrayals of the conflict – he is in direct conversation with them. He does not indulge in writing stereotypes instead of characters, and his nameless narrator has numerous opportunities to critique representation. Nguyen sketches the lazy, two-tone figures that fill the nightmares and ambitions of soldiers, directors, politicians and academicians, and starkly illustrates the gap between Vietnam in American imaginations and Vietnam in real life.

No where does Nguyen draw this point more clearly  than with his female characters, who refuse to become mistresses ready to lay down their lives for their soldier paramours, lusty hookers prepared to take on the navy, or degendered revolutionaries inhumanly committed to the cause, yet the moment an American creates a Vietnamese character, they immediately revert to stereotype, as in the book’s meta-history of American cinematic representation of the war.

Nguyen points out in The Sympathizer that while history is usually written by the victors, the American defeat in Vietnam was eclipsed by the American dominance in the culture industries. American-produced films, shot in the Philippines, determined how the world would remember the war – with extras given few lines and representing mere foils to the drama between white characters. No need to be sensitive when you control the entire production of culture, and thus have secure control over the production of  your own image.

He also draws attention to how American stories of Vietnamese refugees – whether news or novels – treat the refugee experience in a vacuum, rather than acknowledging that those fleeing to the United States for refuge have had their lives compromised by the United States in  the first place – either by bombs or through collaboration. This struck me as the most relevant point to our current political situation – America creates refugee crises, and refuses to accept responsibility. When people flee their countries for the US, it is for the most part because those nations have been bombed to smithereens and destabilized for decades by trigger-happy war hawks from our own shores.

Like his depiction of refugees and representation,  Nguyen’s take on the truth makes a specific statement about the war and expands to a much larger point about humanity. The Sympathizer is a story of double agents, a archetypal tale of tricksters and despots, a tale of liars and hypocrites. I’d like to draw a distinction between a liar and a hypocrite.

A great liar is one who has been abused, one who has learned to manipulate the truth for their own safety, one who must look to the angry face of a changeable master and know that their next words could determine their entire futures. Lies are the performance of submission, and behind the mask the liar plots for independence. Lies are part and parcel of the asymmetrical warfare that has characterized colonial and domestic conflicts since World War II, with a longer history stretching to the dawn of inequality. They are a weapon to be used, because they are used by those with few weapons in the first place.

Hypocrites are like internet trolls. They feel no attachment to their claims, because they will never have to follow them up with action.They can make a joke about poverty because they are not economically vulnerable, and they can pretend that a prostitute loves her work and a wife loves her place in the home and a mistress loves her soldier because they refuse to accept the economic nature of their most intimate relationships. They can criticize an entire society, because they have never bothered to look at their own.  They can promise, and fail to deliver on their words, because they are too powerful to be beholden to one considered lesser. Better to be a liar, a trickster – be the person you have to be, to survive, and take strength from the ability to hold back a truth and thus, for a little while longer, control your own fate.

In case you hadn’t guessed where I was going with this, the colonizer is the hypocrite – the colonized is the liar. When you’re getting paid to be exploited, like any nanny or therapist can attest to, any intimacy created in such circumstances ends when the money stops, you get a better offer, or you find a way to reject your pittance and pigeon-holed existence in favor of what you really want. In this struggle between the casual hypocrisy of power, and the mask worn by the oppressed, the double agent wins.

The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club meets to discuss Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer on Monday, March 20th, at 1 PM. You can find copies of The Sympathizer on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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