A voice to Vietnam’s strangled anger

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Viet Thanh Nguyen says his book The Sympathizer was unnerving for many Americans. AFP

PARIS (AFP) – When Americans debate the Vietnam War, what the Vietnamese thought rarely gets
a mention. Not any more.

The Sympathizer, by Vietnamese-American academic Viet Thanh Nguyen, has ended that silence.

An excoriating tragi-comic novel, a bestseller in the US, it not only dismantles the Hollywood myth of the conflict but turns it inside out.

Told from the perspective of an American-educated Viet Cong double agent, its sweeping arc – and bravura takedown of the legendary film Apocalypse Now – won Nguyen the 2016 Pulitzer and a pile of other top prizes.

The judges of the Dublin Literary Award – one of the few it didn’t win – described it as “the masterpiece on Vietnam that the world has been waiting for”.

Nguyen, who escaped his homeland in his mother’s arms after the fall of Saigon in 1975, is not the type to have his head turned by critics comparing his debut novel to such classics as Catch 22 and The Invisible Man.

“All Vietnamese people are apparently proud of me now even if they haven’t read the book, or whether they agree with it. The Pulitzer trumps everything,” he said in Paris, where he is working on a new book.

“I’m happy that they’re proud. I’m glad I can give them something, yet I find it a little bit sad that they feel their experiences are so little known that the validation of a literary prize matters so much.”

Having tried to “humanise” ordinary Vietnamese people in his acclaimed short stories, Nguyen chose to unleash their strangled anger towards the Americans, French colonialism and their own leaders in his novel.

Just to live, “I had turned my anger down to a pilot light”, said Nguyen. “I turned it up for The Sympathizer, and that was unnerving for many Americans.

“We Asians are supposed to be the model minority. We are the nice people. We are not supposed to get upset.

“I have had some hate mail from veterans, which is OK. I’m trying to force everybody to reconsider everything they know about the Vietnam War.”

But Nguyen, who grew up between a refugee camp and the shop his parents slaved to set up in California, is an equal opportunities satirist. While he eviscerates a barely-disguised Francis Ford Coppola on the Philippine set of his iconic film, the Vietnamese do not emerge smelling of roses either.

“If I had only criticised the communists or the Americans I would have been fine,” Nguyen said.

For his Vietnamese characters are not only human “they are also inhuman, capable of doing terrible things. Some terrible things happen in the book, as they did in Vietnam. Nothing I wrote about did not happen.

“Everybody did something wrong, everybody deserves to be offended.”

Nguyen said he was “anxious” about how the Vietnamese translation would be received.

“I wonder even how my own family will react to this depiction of Vietnamese complexity and contradictions,” he said.

That it has taken this long for a Vietnamese writer to take on the war and its legacy is no surprise to him.

“Vietnamese people do anything to avoid conflict. There is a very big temptation not to talk about the war. The Communist Party control the narrative and if you try to get another perspective in there you are censored or exiled.”

In America, Vietnamese writers are up against Hollywood, he said, “the unofficial propaganda of the United States. These movies cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Are you going to go up in front of that with your puny little novel?”

Americans also “like to think that they know something about Vietnam. But it is only ever their experiences we see”, he insisted.

So Nguyen, a professor of English and ethnicity, decided to turn US attitudes on race to his advantage.

“As a minority you are expected to write about your ‘minority experience’. So I decided to give them that, but done my way, a way neither Americans nor Vietnamese people have seen before.”

His big challenge was to find a character who could cross the lines. And in coming up with an ambivalent Communist mole in the South Vietnamese army, the unwanted son of a French colonial Catholic priest and his maid, Nguyen found his man.

Smart, sarcastic, yet desperate to be accepted and to please, the spy agrees to become an advisor on the set of Apocalypse Now.

“The Movie,” the character observes at one point in the book, “was just a sequel to our war and a prequel to the next one that America was destined to wage.

“Killing the extras was either a re-enactment of what had happened to us natives or a dress rehearsal for the next such episode, with the Movie the local anaesthetic applied to the American mind.”

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