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Secrets of a spy

Lead review

The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Hachette 2016, pp 371, Rs. 499

When tinged with humour, the gravest of subjects like war acquires an interesting and profound colour, writes Monideepa Sahu about ‘The Sympathizer’

This engrossing tragi-comic novel set in the final days of the Vietnam War richly deserves the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2016. The story and its style and rendering are striking, to say the least. The novel startles with the vastness of its scope; the clash of civilisations, cultures and ideologies; war where no party is right, and its futile aftermath; art as insight or propaganda; the many faces of racism in America and in Vietnam; the flaws in the dazzling American Dream, and in the egalitarian Communist dream. The narrative negotiates complex ideas with a flawless touch, showing how everything has multiple contradictory facets.

Momentous concepts do not weigh down the narrative, but are turned inside out to expose their inherent absurdities. Even torture need not necessarily be gloomy, but can ironically be laughable. Even American military muscle flexing can be incongruously self-contradictory. “After all, nothing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence.” All this is deftly woven into an exciting, action-packed plot, with espionage, bombings, executions, military evacuations, movie shootings and musical extravaganzas, and romantic interludes.

The novel opens with the nameless narrator writing his confession in a prison interrogation cell. He is addressed as ‘Captain’ by his commanding officer, while others never think of referring to him by any name at all. After all, he is “a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, (he is) also a man of two minds.” This spy hides “where everyone can see him and where he can see everything. “We cannot help but admire his intelligence and talent for seeing every issue from both sides, unveiling the comic and ironic aspects of the dangerous situations he negotiates. He is a rare man capable of laughing at himself.

As he writes and rewrites lengthy confessions as a prisoner of the same communists for whom he had been spying, the narrator reveals many conflicting identities. He is a socially ostracised racial-hybrid illegitimate son of a French priest and a Vietnamese girl; too tall and fair to blend in with the native Vietnamese, and too oriental in appearance and upbringing to be accepted as a Westerner. As a Captain in the vanquished army of South Vietnam, he is a mole passing information to the Communist ‘enemy’ northerners. He is a communist sympathiser who studied in a US university to understand Americans through their perception of the Vietnamese. This education and exposure to a decadent culture makes the narrator see too clearly how a war “that meant everything to all the people in our small part of the world” could mean “nothing to most people in the rest of the world.” It also makes him a reactionary sullied by American ideas to the hard-core communists into whose fold he wishes to return.

His political choices and his secret police service eventually force the narrator to cultivate his violent side. But his saving grace is his sense of humour and irony. He is “not just any mole” or spy, as his friend Man tells him. He is “the mole that is the beauty spot on the nose of power itself.” He is “more lover than fighter.” With quirky insights, he can turn traditional morality upside down, sometimes with hilarious effects. “Torture is obscene. Three million dead is obscene. Masturbation, even with an admittedly non-consensual squid? Not so much.”

We feel for the narrator’s inner struggles when he is commanded to plot the killing of the probably innocent Crapulent Major. He even shares with the Crapulent Major’s widow his compensation money for a grievous accident or murder attempt (depending on your perspective) he suffered on the sets of a Hollywood movie. Memories of his execution victim Sonny the journalist, the Crapulent Major, and the tortured Communist woman agent, whom he failed to protect, haunt him throughout the narrative. This reluctant killer is capable of deep lifelong loyalties and love, towards his mother, and his childhood friends Man and Bon. We grow to love him for his intelligence and insightfulness, his sense of self-criticism and his ability to see the absurdity of it all. We feel his pain as he undergoes torture to become what he cannot; transformation from an American into not just an anti-American, but one hundred percent Vietnamese.


We share his inner struggle as he powerlessly watched and did nothing, while a beautiful young female communist agent was tortured and gang raped. She defiantly says to her tormentors that her surname is Viet and given name, Nam. Her torture symbolises the ravaging of Vietnam itself, not just by foreigners but also by her own people. If only “we forgot our resentment, if we forgot revenge, if we acknowledged that we are all puppets in someone else’s play...” The narrator’s ironic insightfulness turns upon revolution itself as revolutionaries metamorphose into reactionary imperialists. “How our revolution had gone from being the vanguard of political change to the rearguard hoarding power... Hadn’t the French and Americans done exactly the same?” He urges us to question along with him, “Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others?”
Packed with exciting action and undercurrents of deep ideas, this is a brilliantly executed and deliciously memorable read.

The Sympathizer
Viet Thanh Nguyen
Hachette
2016, pp 371, Rs. 499

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