A Dark, Funny — And Vietnamese — Look At The Vietnam War

A Dark, Funny — And Vietnamese — Look At The Vietnam War

9:04pm Apr 11, 2015
The Sympathizer cover detail.
  • The Sympathizer cover detail.

  • Viet Thanh Nguyen teaches English and American Studies at the University of Southern California.

    Viet Thanh Nguyen teaches English and American Studies at the University of Southern California.

    BeBe Jacobs / Courtesy of Grove Atlantic Publishing

The Captain, a Communist sympathizer who's risen through the ranks of the South Vietnamese Army, has a confession:

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.

So begins Viet Thanh Nguyen's new novel, The Sympathizer.

Its publication comes 40 years to the month after the fall of Saigon ("or liberation ... depending on your point of view," Nguyen tells NPR's Arun Rath) in April 1975.

The book is written as a confession from the narrator's jail cell, recounting his post-war mission: to flee with the remnants of the South Vietnamese Army to the United States, and continue to spy on them. That mission takes the Captain to Los Angeles, to the Philippines to participate in the filming of an extravagant Vietnam War movie (sound familiar?), and back to Vietnam itself.

Nguyen is Vietnamese-American, and was just 4 years old when his family fled South Vietnam in 1975. He now studies ethnicity in America as a professor at the University of Southern California. The novel is rife with insight and criticism — and importantly in America, Nguyen tells Rath, the perspective of a Vietnamese person during and after the war.

To hear their full conversation, click the audio link above.


Interview highlights

On the author's background

I was born in Vietnam and fled as a refugee in April of 1975 with my family to the United States. And even though I grew up as an American, deeply Americanized, this shadow of the war and of history hung over me, because I was constantly hearing stories about what had happened to the Vietnamese people from my parents or from the extended Vietnamese community that I was living in. And so I just absorbed that sense of a persistent memory, of persistent trauma, of this feeling that the war was not over, and that the country had been lost, and that we still hoped that one day we would take that country back.

On the Vietnam War in American movies

When I was growing up in the 1980s, the idea that Hollywood was fighting the Vietnam War again, through all manner of popular movies that many people have seen, was very important to me. Because I would go to these movies and on the one hand, I would identify with American soldiers [like Rambo] because I was an American moviegoer.

[Rambo] is an action hero. He's Sylvester Stallone. He's beautiful on screen. There's pleasure to be had in shooting big guns and showing off big muscles — until the moment when I realized, "Wait a minute, I'm also the gook on the screen being killed."

I remember sitting and watching Platoon in a movie theater, and when the Vietnamese were shot, people would cheer. I was like, "Wait, that's weird, who am I supposed to identify with at this moment?" ...

Apocalypse Now was a movie that was very important to me. I think I saw it when I was 10 or 11 years old, one of the early movies I saw on a VCR — [and it] totally traumatized me. My voice would shake even 10 years later describing a scene from the movie where the sailors massacre a sanpan full of Vietnamese civilians.

On the one hand, it's an incredible work of art. I think I admire that film. On the other hand, it puts me in a very difficult situation as the Vietnamese person who gets killed in the movie. ...

It's much better to be the villain and the anti-hero than to be the extra who gets killed. And that's what essentially is happening in American Vietnam War movies of the 1980s. Yes, they depict a very dark side of the American experience, but that also means that they cast Americans as the central subjects of history.

On whether the Captain's story is the great American story

He has to come here and remake himself. And actually, part of the story is that he first came to the States in the '60s as a foreign exchange student. And this is where his love affair with America begins. So he's certainly aware of all these issues about being a part of the American dream, of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, of reinventing yourself in America in a completely new fashion.

He's infatuated with all those things, but he's deeply skeptical of them at the same time. Because he's absolutely cognizant that all of this narrative of the American self-transformation is partially what justified the American intervention in Vietnam, and partially how Americans saw themselves in Vietnam.

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Transcript

VIET THANH NGUYEN: (Reading) I'm a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I'm also a man of two minds. I'm not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I'm simply able to see any issue from both sides.

ARUN RATH, HOST:

That is the voice of the Captain, the otherwise unnamed narrator of Viet Nguyen's debut novel, "The Sympathizer." The Captain was a double agent during the war, a South Vietnamese soldier secretly working for the communists, and the novel is the text of his confession. It opens with an event very familiar to Americans that took place 40 years ago this month.

NGUYEN: The novel begins in April 1975 with the fall or liberation of Saigon, depending on your point of view. And he's tasked with a new mission, which is to flee with the remnants of the South Vietnamese army to the United States and spy on them, because the communists believe that the war is not going to be over, that these - this defeated army will still continue to try and fight, which is actually really the case. This really did happen. And so his mission is to keep track of their efforts and to eventually go with them back to Southeast Asia and fight the war again.

RATH: And your background, we should tell people. You were born in Vietnam, spent most of your youth in the U.S., right?

NGUYEN: That's right. I was born in Vietnam and fled as a refugee in April of 1975 with my family to the United States. And even though I grew up as an American, deeply Americanized, this shadow of the war and of history hung over me, because I was constantly hearing stories about what had happened to the Vietnamese people from my parents or from the extend Vietnamese community that I was living in. And so I just absorbed that sense of a persistent memory, of persistent trauma, of this feeling that the war was not over and that the country had been lost and that we still hoped that one day, we would take that country back.

RATH: Your novel follows the period of history from the end of the American military involvement in Vietnam, but a period that also - it feels like Vietnam becomes even more important in America's popular consciousness than it was during the time of the military involvement. And in a way, this novel feels like it's almost a response to not just a lot of books that Americans have written about Vietnam, but obviously a lot of films which have come out about Vietnam and the war.

NGUYEN: Yeah. When I was growing up in the 1980s, the idea that Hollywood was fighting the Vietnam War again through all manner of popular movies that many people have seen was very important to me because I would go to these movies. And on the one hand, I would identify with American soldiers because I was an American moviegoer, and then...

RATH: You identified with Rambo, say? (Laughter).

NGUYEN: Of course, because he's an action hero, and he's Sylvester Stallone. He's beautiful on screen. And there's pleasure to be had in shooting big guns and showing off big muscles until the moment when I realized, wait a minute. I'm also the gook on the screen being killed. You know, and I would remember sitting - watching "Platoon," and when the Vietnamese soldiers were being shot, people would cheer. I'm like - I went like, wait. That's a weird - who am I supposed to identify with at this moment?

But so I wanted to really foreground that, criticize that in the subplot in this novel where our narrator becomes involved with the making of an epic Vietnam War movie that is to be shot in the Philippines. And he goes with the crew to shoot this movie, which is a synthesis of all of these Vietnam War movies that I'd seen and a critique of how Americans choose to remember the Vietnam War as their own fantasy in which they are the central players and the Vietnamese people, who are the ones who are really involved, become the extras who are there just to be killed.

RATH: You see, it incorporates elements from a variety of things, but it's almost impossible not to read it as "Apocalypse Now," because there is auteur-type director who - it's kind of hard not to read it as Coppola. There's almost - there's a Marlon Brando (laughter) character.

NGUYEN: Yeah. I mean, "Apocalypse Now" was a movie that was very important to me, because I think I saw it when I was 10 or 11 years old, one of the early movies I saw on a VCR - totally traumatized me. My voice would shake, even 10 years later, describing a scene from the movie where, you know, the sailors massacre a sanpan full of Vietnamese civilians.

And on one hand, it's an incredible work of art. I think - I admire that film. On the other hand, it puts me in a very difficult situation as the Vietnamese person who gets killed in the movie. And I wanted to - there's no doubt that the film - that the section is satirical of Coppola and "Apocalypse Now" in a way that...

RATH: It's very funny. It's brutally funny.

NGUYEN: Oh, I'm glad. I'm glad you felt that way. I hope Coppola feels that way if he ever reads this book.

RATH: And these films, seeing them from these - from this perspective, a lot of these films, which seem to really critique America, really come across more of a celebration of America.

NGUYEN: Right. Well, the way that I think about it is that Americans always want to be on center stage, even if it means being the villain and the antihero. It's much better to be the villain and the antihero than to be the extra who gets killed. And that's what's - that's what essentially is happening in American Vietnam War movies in the 1980s. That yes, they depict a very dark side of the American experience, but that also means that they cast Americans as the central subjects of history and can - they force us to continue to identify with Americans and continue to empathize with American experience.

RATH: The story of the narrator of this book - and he goes unnamed. That's why I keep referring to him as the narrator. I guess we could call him the Captain as well. You know, his story - you know, coming to America, finding his place in a way, even though he's got this divided consciousness and integrating his own experience - in a way, it's really - it's the great American story, isn't it?

NGUYEN: Yeah. I mean, he has to come here and remake himself. And actually, you know, part of the story is that he first came to the states in the '60s as a foreign exchange student, and this is where his love affair with America begins. And so he's certainly aware of all of this - all of these issues about being a part of the American dream - of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, of reinventing yourself in America in a completely new fashion.

He's infatuated with all those things, but he's also deeply skeptical of them at the same time because he's absolutely cognizant that all of this narrative of the American self-transformation is partially what justified the American intervention in Vietnam and partially how Americans saw themselves in Vietnam.

RATH: Weaving in all of these threads of the American experience together, is this the great American novel?

NGUYEN: It's been called the great American novel. It's been called the great Vietnamese novel. It's been called an anti-American novel. And I think it could be - potentially be considered as all of those things.

RATH: Viet Nguyen's new book is "The Sympathizer." It covers so much; we've only really scratched the surface here. It's been a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you so much.

NGUYEN: And thank you. It's been a pleasure as well. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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