Saturday, May 02, 2020

"The Sympathizer" by Viet Thanh Nguyen

"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! How we missed it, dear Aunt, how nothing tasted right without it, how we longed for the grand cru of Phu Quoc Island and its vats brimming with the finest vintage of pressed anchovies! This pungent liquid condiment of the darkest sepia hue was much denigrated by foreigners for its supposedly horrendous reek, lending new meaning to the phrase 'there’s something fishy around here,' for we were the fishy ones. We used fish sauce the way Transylvanian villagers wore cloves of garlic to ward off vampires, in our case to establish a perimeter with those Westerners who could never understand that what was truly fishy was the nauseating stench of cheese. What was fermented fish compared to curdled milk?" (Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer, Kindle Locations 1158-1166). 
The Sympathizer. Published 2015.
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2016.
Vietnamese author Viet Thanh Nguyen, in the novel The Sympathizer, tells the reader a lot about the life in America of Vietnamese immigrants and their children, along with the story of the narrator, a participant in the South Vietnamese support of the American side of the Vietnam war, but at the same time a sympathizer with the Communists whom the Americans were fighting. "I longed to tell someone that I was one of them, a sympathizer with the Left, a revolutionary fighting for peace, equality, democracy, freedom, and independence, all the noble things my people had died for and I had hid for," the narrator wrote. (Kindle Locations 1028-1029).

I liked the quoted paragraph at the beginning of this post for the way it uses food to tell the story, but the real story is politics and war, and the portrait of a complex man caught in the currents of history. The plot includes many events and experiences that I'm not going to relate in this review -- I have skipped any discussion of the last portion of the book to avoid spoilers. I especially admired the satire and irony used to portray the complexity of the narrator's experiences.

The fall of Saigon, told from the narrator's point of view, is one of the most informative elements of the novel. This crucial event took place almost exactly 45 years ago, April 30, 1975, if you have forgotten the date. From the time that war protests started until the fall of Saigon, I thought about Vietnam all the time. I went to anti-war rallies. I read war coverage in many anti-war news and opinion sources. I deplored the persecution of war resisters and the attacks on innocent bystanders like the dead of Kent State in 1970, in a protest against the bombing of Cambodia, which was also part of the War in Vietnam.

Once the war was over, I forgot everything I ever knew, or at least stopped thinking about it. That was sort of ok because what I knew was probably wrong anyway. I never understood what we were fighting for, only that good men and women fighting on both sides, as well as protestors, were dead who should have lived. Some bad ones, too. I knew one big thing: our leaders refused to stop the war. I was angry, just the way I am angry now with the misguided and malevolent officials of our government. This book made me remember -- and I'm grateful to Evelyn who inspired me to read it.

A recurring theme of The Sympathizer is the way that American insiders never understand the outsider. It's an old idea that has been explored by numerous other groups of outsiders. Here's how this narrator -- vividly -- explains this truism:
"Even with liberal white people, one could go only so far, and with average white people one could barely go anywhere. The General was deeply familiar with the nature, nuances, and internal differences of white people, as was every nonwhite person who had lived here a good number of years. We ate their food, we watched their movies, we observed their lives and psyche via television and in everyday contact, we learned their language, we absorbed their subtle cues, we laughed at their jokes, even when made at our expense, we humbly accepted their condescension, we eavesdropped on their conversations in supermarkets and the dentist’s office, and we protected them by not speaking our own language in their presence, which unnerved them. We were the greatest anthropologists ever of the American people, which the American people never knew because our field notes were written in our own language in letters and postcards dispatched to our countries of origin, where our relatives read our reports with hilarity, confusion, and awe." (Kindle Locations 3898-3905).
Americans, the narrator realized, never seriously want to understand or connect to him: "Only losers like us couldn’t have seen what’s so obvious now, how you wouldn’t want anyone for your friend who actually wanted to be your friend. Deep down you suspect only fools and traitors would believe your promises." (Kindle Locations 2523-2525).

A major plot element of The Sympathizer involves the narrator's role in the making of a Hollywood blockbuster about Vietnam: a movie being made soon after the war was over. In the Afterword, the author mentions as a model Apocalypse Now, which was released in 1979, so that suggests the time frame of the novel and the genre of the movie. The description of the narrator's role in the film is full of irony and satire, and is wonderful to read. It's a masterful portrayal of the film-makers' contempt for the humanity of the Vietnamese, no matter which side they supported. You are made to share the narrator's frustration and fury at Hollywood's indifferent stereotyping and willful lack of empathy for the Vietnamese characters in the film -- "Here I speak of those cartoons named Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan, Number One Son, Hop Sing— Hop Sing!— and the bucktoothed, bespectacled Jap not so much played as mocked by Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s." (Kindle Locations 1995-1997).

One way that Americans, perhaps myself included, think they are learning about another culture is to appropriate some of the food ways of the outside group. This process has been the subject of numerous cultural studies, and I don't have anything to add to it, I just wonder if the presence in my pantry of two bottles of different types of Vietnamese fish sauce has any deeper meaning.

This review copyright © 2020 by mae sander for mae food dot blog spot dot com.

UPDATE, May 3, 2020 -- For a very enlightening comparison between the effects of the Vietnam War and the effects of the current pandemic on American black communities, see this article: "As with Vietnam in the 1960s, COVID-19 is exposing racial fault lines in the U.S." by Emily Quint Freeman, published May 3.


Angie's Recipes said...

I am going to get a kindle version! Thanks for the review, Mae.

Laurel-Rain Snow said...

Great review! This one sounds like a great story.

Camilla M. Mann said...

This is on my list of books to read. Thanks for the reminder to put it towards the top of the list.

Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

Your opening paragraph was a great choice. Especially interesting to me was even then, things came from China. In our new world I hope we go back to depending on local.

A Day in the Life on the Farm said...

This was supposed to be the choice for our Lit Happens last month but due to the stress in our lives we decided to go with a lighter read. I did order this up and it is in the queue.