They say history is written by the victors. In the case of the Vietnam War, the country that beat a hasty retreat has gotten to tell its story over and over again in films. But other sides in the conflict—the ARVN or Army of the Republic of Vietnam (supported by US military), and the communist North Vietnamese army (supported by the Viet Cong)—barely get even a mention. Now finally, we have a voice that speaks up from another corner of this polygonal table.
In The Sympathizer, author Viet Thanh Nguyen, fluently tells the story of an unnamed aide-de-camp in the ARVN, who escapes to the US after Saigon falls to North Vietnamese army in 1975. He is one of the fortunate few and US army evacuates him purely because of his military status. It’s a mixed blessing. His status is changed from soldier to refugee in a day. The life of the motley group of compatriots is marked by a daily struggle to assimilate into the American society that neither knows nor seems to care about the Vietnamese culture.
Our protagonist is something of a metaphor for Vietnam: he’s of mixed parentage (his father is a Western priest who never acknowledges him) and is divided between his ostensible loyalty to his army and his secret fealty to the Communist Party. The civil war between the north and south plays out in his soul.
In the meantime, since his command of English is good, he finds himself a de-facto ambassador for the Vietnamese in America. Not that his viewpoint and protests are heard over the smug attitudes he finds everywhere. He’s asked to list out his “occidental” versus his “oriental” characteristics, as if they’re fundamentally different from each other.
Later on, he’s drafted as a “culture consultant” for a movie based on the Vietnam war. To his horror, he finds the movie features not a single Vietnamese speaking part—his people appear on the screen to get blown up by the “heroic” Americans.
He manages to persuade the director (referred to as The Auteur) to add actual Vietnamese characters, and finds that these new roles are one-dimensional and stereotypical.
Nguyen does no spoonfeeding. You start out confused. There’s an evacuation, collateral casualties. Perhaps, a review of the Vietnam War would have helped. But you aren’t supposed to understand it at first: you are one of the outsiders who lumps the Vietnamese into the “oriental” group. You know the war only as the backstory for Hollywood movies. Well, you were ignorant. And it’s an uncomfortable feeling knowing that you’re being made fun of. But then, isn’t that what literature is supposed to do? Push you to discomfort so that you see things from a new light. The theme isn’t new, it’s just presented differently. Political ideology, just like religious ideology, prevents its strictest adherents from seeing the essential truths of the world around them.
Here, we have the world views of both Americans and communists, and we get to see that neither encompasses all the functioning of society. Through the eyes of our divided hero, we see the futility of taking a side.