May 24, 2018

Reading Uncertainly? ‘The Sympathizer’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The_SympathizerHow often do we take sides while harboring a suspicion that the other fellow’s view actually has some merit? Nguyen’s narrator, never named, but referred to as “The Captain,” states his position at the outset: “ … I am also a man of two minds … I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.”
The Captain is a Vietnamese, ostensibly working for the American forces at the tail-end of the Vietnam (or “American,” as it is called there) War, while acting as mole, an undercover agent, for the Vietcong and the northern forces. Born in North Vietnam of a Vietnamese mother and a father who is a Roman Catholic priest, he leaves for the south and is immediately enmeshed in contradictions. One of the first is the obvious double-meaning of the word “father.”
There he becomes part of an unusual three-man team, the “we” of this compelling take: Bon, an ardent anti-communist, Man, an equally committed communist, and The Captain, who deliciously equivocates through the saga. It is, in fact, a perfect elaboration of the yin and yang culture that dominates the Far East, from the I Ching, to Lao Tse and Confucius. Forces seemingly in opposition are in fact complimentary — they cannot exist without one another.
Nguyen, in the role of The Captain, argues men of “utter conviction” are “insufferable,” noting “The General”, to whom the narrator reports, “ … was a sincere man who believed in everything he said, even if it was a lie, which makes him not so different from most.” The narrator then goes on to puncture every conceivable balloon of human fatuity. We live, he claims, in a litany of contradictions.
Witness another character, “The Congressman”, who berates the “controls” of communism but then describes his “democratic” system as even more autocratic, using censorship and control, because, as he says, “Americans are a confused people.” The Captain comments: “ . that omnipresent American narcotic, optimism, the unending flow of which poured through the American minds continuously whitewashing the graffiti of despair, rage, hatred, and a nihilism scrawled by the black hoodlums of the unconscious.”
Here is a delicious story of the last days of that War and what followed in both the United States and Asia. “We are all puppets in someone else’s play.” And the story is often hilarious, too. The Captain describes, in three joyful pages, his attempt to masturbate with a dead squid!
Nguyen ends with yet another double meaning, “Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom,” as The Captain finally realizes the two senses of this phrase. But he remains “the most hopeful of creatures, a revolutionary in search of a revolution.” A thriller in one sense but a social commentary in another and a challenging counterview to this year commemorating the end of that War.
Opposite ideas are indeed complimentary!
Editor’s Note: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen is published by Grove Press, New York 2015.

Felix Kloman_headshot_2005_284x331-150x150About the author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.


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