Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Gió thường xuyên đến hôm thứ Năm tại 14:00

"The American enterprise in Indochina was, I think, foredoomed by one thing, namely its direct inheritance from French colonialism in that region. The French empire should never have been restored after 1945. I think if President Roosevelt had not died, it wouldn’t have been. The United States should not have tried to come to its rescue, and shouldn’t have tried to succeed it. It’s not America’s role to succeed Western colonialism. It’s its role to help those colonies to become emancipated. And we missed that chance, and having missed it, engaged in a war where terrifying and illegal methods of warfare, like carpet bombing, the use of chemical defoliant, like Agent Orange, and other terrible war crimes were committed. And part of the reason why Cambodia went to year zero was that it had been half bombed back into the Stone Age already. And I’m sorry that should be on the conscience of anyone who supported the war, which I did not. But though I don’t try and evade the responsibility for what the other side eventually did, not just in Cambodia, but also in Vietnam, there was never any chance of keeping Vietnam partitioned, and it shouldn’t have been tried. Now furthermore, no American interest was really involved there. We were told we were fighting against the Chinese takeover, whereas the best insurance against Maoism in Indochina is always Vietnam. That’s been proved many times since then. So none of this applies in the case of Iraq, where we went to overthrow a hideous dictatorship that was a local aggressor, a sponsor of international terrorism, had used weapons of mass destruction inside and outside its own borders, was hated by its people, and was in thoroughgoing breach of all important United Nations resolutions. None of this, by the way, was the case with the government of Vietnam."  -  C. Hitchens

The crapulent majors of the Duc City met to interrogate one another re the acrid Apocalypse, Hitchen's Monday-morning summary, Nguyen's timeless prose, and Ferrell's forgotten involvement. They began by rattling their rice bowls at high noon at the Range Cafe in Bernalillo.  They found that Maj Jensen had been deployed to the Orient, i.e., Maui, and Maj. Gillen was to proceed by occidental directly from Manzano Mesa Tax Preparation Center. For the rest of us, the baht buses will form up for the crowded carpool convoy in the parking lot of the Range Cafe following lunch, at 1:45 pm on Thursday for the short but meaningful transformation to Sunset Blvd. All former communists were welcome.  Liquor to be provided by The General.

Meanwhile, we sent Violet over to proofread Jack's confession for Le Commandant.
"có thể gió thường xuyên vuốt ve trán nhăn của bạn, " she said.  And observed:­

Kenny G:  I think the author really knows how to write - eloquent writing, at times too eloquent for me.  Example in Chapter 22, with his "mattress' experience:  "experience yolk shimmering in ..." - a little two much at times.  The writing was very tedious at the end; and at times, confusing.  A-/B+

Ron B:  I read the first half of the book.  I liked the writing style - excellent!  I won't say I'm in love with it; and now I know I will not finish the (ending) 60 pages of torture.  He could have left out the squid episode.  I give it an A for the writing.  Throughout the book, I felt strung along with the commandant.  This is the last war story I want to read.

Dick A:  I think this guy has tremendous talent for writing.  He developed an excellent point of view throughout, then in Chapter 21 he uses the third person, as he was viewing himself.  I was bothered that he was a spy, yet everything he did played his part as a mole.  From a writing standpoint, how few have "names" - just the Madame, the General, the Captain (narrator).  Solid A.

Rob E:   This was a very impressive book with creative, imaginative writing. On the down side, I thought the movie part was overdone. I liked the author's phrases like the "kudzu of strip malls" and "pneumatic Miss June." Then, there were the "cross-­eyed catfish" that inhabited a fish pond situated under an outhouse (the fish watched the overhead butts, waiting to be served). However, he went too far for me as a Hank Williams fan, when he chose Hank's music as a way to torture prisoners. (He should have played "Your Cheatin' Heart, rather than"Hey, Good Lookin' " ­ Hank didn't use g's ­ as a way to work on a prisoner's conscience). Then, he went on to characterize country music as music to lynch by. That's unfair.

The Mao-­like "re-­education" that Uncle Ho imposed on what was South Vietnam was really grim. However, the author's essay on cleavage was quite entertaining. This was cast as a spy novel; the Russian spy novels by John Le Carre have grown more introspective over the years and I thought Nguyen fell into that format: ­­ too much introspection and navel­-gazing, at the expense of action and intrigue. Bottom line: this was very impressive as a first novel ­ I give it an A for creativity, imagination, telling his country's story in a compelling, way.

With respect to your comments on editors, I've been wanting to tell this story. Back in the 80s I was Editor of a technical (statistical) journal. I reviewed a submittal by a fairly well­ known statistician and found it not suitable for publication in my esteemed journal. I conveyed that message as diplomatically as I could. It happened that this author also edited a journal ­ sort of a vanity press for statisticians, one with low standards. This is where authors sent their papers if they got rejected by other journals.
He wrote me (approximately): I know what it's like to be an editor; perhaps you accidentally sent me the wrong form letter. I wrote back: Perhaps you accidentally sent your paper to the wrong journal!. After that, I always tried to stay out of his line of vision at conferences we both attended.

Tom G:  I agree about Hank Williams - that is part of our culture and tells me the author is not yet fully assimilated.  The book was often a little overdone.  The ending left me cold.   Could this be my lack of Zen?  was it really 'nothing' he did for the communist agent?  But as for the two sentences of nothing, I saw 'nothing' to distinguish them.  Then there was where he had the narrator "crack open a carton of cigarettes and offered her a cigarette" - makes no sense.  A-

Charlie:  Not much to add.  A-   Incredibly well written.  Extraordinary good writer.  As fiction, it made me look back on my life - brought back to me many thoughts.  Also, he explained for me the difference between refugee vs immigrant.  Give it an A as excellent fiction, and a comment of the current environment re refugees.

Keith:  The author:  1/2 French, 1/2 Vietnamese, 100% American.  Not a false narrator but not believable.  My second point:  the novel had a great start to it, but I felt the viscosity grow as I read on, finding myself in a jar of Vaseline.  I thought the middle bogged down.  This was an epiphany in eternal nothingness - as he said, a revolutionary in search of a revolution.  The will to live is the great truth.  I give it a B as I found it overwrought.

Bob S:  I think I have many of the thoughts that Keith did. I give it an A because he has captured the basic workings of human nature in a very literate manner. This was one of four takeaways. The other three included the loss of cultural identity, the loss of any commitment to a cause he could believe in that led to a spiritual awakening and finally the revulsion he felt from the horrors of war including his complicity in killing innocents. It bothered me when (in the middle?) that there was so much money, blood, sweat, tears spent to create a blood bath of killing. I got incensed. Also, the narrator was living with the ghosts of those he had killed. The third theme/plot was most interesting: that so many refugees ended up with no connection to any culture. The Captain like many of his fellow refugees was disconnected from the Vietnamese culture and thrust into the American culture, perhaps creating his bifurcated mind.
Finally, I loved the Zen ending: in his isolation of captivity he gained objectivity as he gained distance to view his existence, looking from far away (in the third person). As an objectivized observer, the Captain experienced an awakening, or nirvana. At the end, he gained a Zen like enlightenment that accepts all the craziness of his existence - and then he says, "Well, just live!" [see the essay at the end of the book about the birth of his son, the process of Life going on: "We will live!"] I thought the insights were great, and the unfortunate aspect of war was insightful. The self-awareness was all good

Mike B:  As I read the first 50 pages, I thought, "Wow!  This is the best thing I've read in twelve years!"  Then the next 50 pages dropped down, and only revived as the General's spirits revived, as he ordered the death of the crapulent major.  Relentlessly creative!  At times wore me down, but mostly I was impressed with the creativeness, such as saying the commandant laid page 307 down on top of 306 to complete the confession.  Solid A

Jack:  I found the novel fascinating - the first book I've read that tells the story from the Vietnamese point of view.  I found his use of irony very powerful in underscoring the absurdity of the war and its consequences. It was not an easy read and in places very uncomfortable, but it was important to get the Vietnamese perspective of a time and place I had thought I would just as soon forget.  I would recommend this book highly:  A

... and from well outside the Mekong Delta:

I'm in Maui so I will not attend the book club on Thursday. I read The Sympathizer and loved it. It's a powerful story that is extremely well written. It's a tough book to read but I learned a great deal about the war in Vietnam and the lives of Vietnamese immigrants to the United States. I hope the author writes a sequel. He apparently has recently published a book of short stories that focuses on ghosts. Sorry I will miss the discussion. Grade: A. The book deserved to win the Pulitzer Prize.
   -  Dick Jensen.