“He could nail the face to the canvas.”
So said Benjamin West of the portrait painter Gilbert Stuart, whose portrait of George Washington hangs in the Frick Collection.
I was reminded of this as I read The Sympathizer the Pulitzer-prize winning debut by Viet Thanh Nguyen. This is strong writing: Nguyen nails the words to the page. A masculine book, but also playful, wise and darkly comic. For example:
“A small nation could be founded from the tropical off-spring of the American GI.”
The humour hides unspeakable horrors, in the way that Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five is funny, until you realise it is walking the line between laughter and tears, and skirting around the shocking events of war that the characters cannot face.
The narrator here and the Sympathizer of the title, or the Captain as he is also known, is a spy in the Vietnam War. He is also a ‘bastard’, born to a French father and Vietnamese mother. So the mask of cynicism such as that worn by Billy Pilgrim is more than a defence mechanism:
“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.”
How is that for an opening, by the way?
Again later, when the Captain is recruited to work on a movie by a director he calls ‘the Auteur’ (which I now realise is based on Apocalypse Now – would be worth re-watching the film):
“But most actors spend more time with their masks off than on, whereas, in my case, it was the reverse. No surprise, then, that sometimes I dreamed of trying to pull a mask off my face only to realise that the mask was my face.”
War is a significant theme of the book. Whilst he may be in ‘two minds’ as to how it affects him, the Captain vividly describes the experience of having his country – and its families – torn apart. He escapes to America, but writes to Aunt (his contact in Paris) of his longing for Vietnam:
“We did our best to conjure up the culinary staples of our culture, but since we were dependent on Chinese markets our food had an unacceptably Chinese tinge, another blow in the gauntlet of our humiliation that left us with the sweet-and-sour taste of unreliable memories, just correct enough to evoke the past, just wrong enough to remind us that the past was forever gone, missing along with the proper variety, subtlety and complexity of our universal solvent, fish sauce. Oh, fish sauce!”
War also exposes the ambiguity of right and wrong, even as some cling more tightly to their convictions (Captain is a Communist sympathizer, but it becomes hard to tell who is ‘right’, when his victims show humanity and his mentor inflicts cruel torture).
Nguyen explores guilt and innocence, as well as loss of innocence. The Captain is interested in the concept of ‘original sin’ and carries Catholic guilt with him, but also considers himself, if not innocent, at least adhering to his own conscience, until events take their course.
“The emotional residue of that night was like a drop of arsenic falling into the still waters of my soul, nothing having changed from the taste of it but everything now tainted.”
War deals in matters of life and death, and the characters who travel to America survive in different ways. Some live in spite of themselves; others rebel against their culture, such as the General’s daughter, while the Captain adapts, embracing the American traditions, speaking their language, smiling when insulted. As he says in the beginning, “I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.”
The Captain’s adaptability is tested, though, and at times he longs for his country, his mother, and struggles to see who is right on either side of the war. Even someone who plays both sides all day long needs a place to call home. There is a line which touches on this, again coating it with humour – from a guidebook on the Philippines:
“The book’s description of the archipelago only made my mind salivate further, for it was ‘old and new, East and West. It’s changing by the day, but traditions persist,’ a description that might have been written to describe me.”
The Captain can laugh at himself. This is what makes him so charming and for me was the saving grace, because the book is confronting and would be too violent or depressing were it not for Nguyen’s light touch. But there is an underlying sadness and disillusionment too, as the Captain knows that ‘traditions persist’ but the country of his youth is gone.
Nguyen weaves these themes and more through the story. But the stand-out for me is the language. It is alive on the page, vivid and visual – I can imagine this as a film. I loved the wordplay and found, as I was checking for quotes, that I could keep going endlessly because the prose is so strong. It feels like Nguyen is having fun, but is angry too. He succeeds in striking a personable tone while balancing rage with wit, a huge achievement.
I was inspired to read this as a summer read-along with The Readers. Thank you, Simon and Thomas! I would not have picked it up otherwise.
As a post-script, Nguyen’s latest book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War has been longlisted for the National Books Awards for non-fiction. Watch this space!