Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The sympathizer

Our February book was Viet Thanh Nguyen's debut novel, The sympathizer, which won the Pulitzer Prize, among other awards. While not everyone had quite finished the book by the meeting, most enjoyed it.

As usual we started with first impressions:

  • funny, amazingly well-written, playful but also intense. Fabulous to read about the Vietnam era, something which feels like unfinished business (in terms of our understanding/reconciling what was done in the name of humanity, the way nations did, and still do, "bash up against each other", killing citizens along the way.) 
  • dense, graphic, evocative, and packed with ideas. The language is great, but the dictionary was needed for many words. 
  • captivated from the first page, because it was so alive and real. The title puzzled at first, but its multiple meanings became clear. The opening description of the day of the Fall of Saigon was so graphic. The book is as much personal as political, and is about America not listening to Vietnamese voices, just as we are not listening to indigenous voices here! So, this member said, she listened! 
  • sad, bleak, but also witty and stirred up this member's way of looking at things. It's about the refugee experience, showing how refugees feel like aliens. The narrator himself represents this alienness through his mixed race background. This member also liked that the book presents multiple points of view, rather than just one perspective. 
  • hard to read, with the sentences being complex and sometimes "over-the-top" 
  • the voice was great from the beginning, and beautifully sustained. The satire was effective, making us laugh and grimace at the same time. It was good to see a Vietnamese viewpoint about the War (like another recent book about the war, written from a Vietnamese perspective, Hoa Pham's The lady of the realm.) 
  • the audiobook version brought the book's stunning language to life and made it easier for this member to engage with the book after she couldn't initially get into it. The descriptions are effective, and there are so many wonderful and emotive scenes. 
  • a complex book, that was perplexing at beginning, but the language, irony, metaphors, alliteration won this member over. It has pathos, particularly about the refugee experience, one that's not unique to those in the book. This member had recently read Jane Fonda's autobiography, My life till now, in which she talks about how many American lives were lost while they were destroying Vietnamese lives.

We then talked a little about the author, who is a professor at USC in Los Angeles. He arrived in the USA as a refugee with his parents when he was about 4 years old. He said in an interview that he had chosen to not "live" with two languages but to "master" English. However, in doing so he'd been exposed "too well to how Americans viewed the Vietnamese". It was seeing films like Apocalypse now and Platoon which encouraged him to want to tell the story from a Vietnamese perspective. He makes this point explicitly at the end of the movie-set section of the novel, when he says that "not to own the means of representation", that is, of telling your own story, is "a kind of death".

He had three main aims for the book: to expose what America did in Vietnam, to express Vietnamese anger at what America did (something he feels Asians have been reluctant to do), and to expose what the Vietnamese did to themselves. (They were not just victims, he said, but also victimisers.) In other words, while his main target was America's actions, he recognises the universality of corrupt, self-serving behaviour.

 "moth-eaten moral covers"

Our discussion proper then started with the fact that the book is presented as a "confession", which we later learn is part of a "re-education" program. The discussion then went rather free-range, but never strayed far from Nguyen's language and his satirical exploration of the Vietnam/American War from multiple angles. We noted Nguyen's desire to represent different voices and experiences, and that our "bastard"-Eurasian-divided narrator was an excellent vehicle for this representational aim. (Several of us enjoyed how this narrator, this divided-I, became "we" at the end.) Many of the characters represent groups of people and/or ideas and/or parts of society. This is typical, we suggested, of satire. So, for example, the narrator's father reflects the colonial story/the missionary role, while his mother, the colonised/the victim.

We talked about politics, about the fact that the Vietnamese wanted American money but not American imperialism, that America continued the war long after they knew they couldn't win. (And we digressed to the war in Cambodia, and Vietnam's role there.)

We shared many examples of the language, particularly in terms of how it reflected Nguyen's themes. The book is replete with irony and paradox, which is embodied in the never-named narrator himself. He is the ultimate paradox - the son of a Vietnamese maid and a missionary, a North Vietnamese mole working for a South Vietnamese general, a philosopher who is not above acting against his philosophy. So, for example, he says, after the squid masturbation scene:
Massacre is obscene. Torture is obscene. Three million dead is obscene. Masturbation, even with an admittedly nonconsensual squid? Not so much. I, for one, am a person who believes the world would be a better place if the word "murder" made us mumble as much as the word "masturbation".
While we'd agree, this is ironic, because he himself murders, and in rather egregious circumstances. Frequently in the book, an idea is presented, only to be turned on its head in another situation.

Members shared other examples of language they liked: a description of the refugee experience as the "metasising cancer called assimilation", and this of our "moth-eaten moral covers".

"we too could abuse grand ideals"

And we talked about the satire - sharing many examples from the book, such as:
The Chinese might have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in lasciviousness, he was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb 'to cleave,' which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman's cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity. The double meaning was also present in how cleavage separated a woman from a man and yet drew him to her with the irresistible force of sliding down a slippery slope. Man had no equivalent, except, perhaps, for the only kind of male cleavage most women truly cared for, the open and closing of a well stuffed billfold.
And this, on the General's plan to mount an attack from America:
The General's men, by preparing themselves to invade our communist homeland, were in fact turning themselves into new Americans. 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.
The satire is also conveyed through names. The raped/tortured agent says her name is Viet Nam, and the narrator refers to many characters by description rather than name, including the crapulent major, the baby-faced guard, the grizzled captain, the affectless lieutenant.

Related to the satire is the humour. Some of us called it black humour while others preferred to call it bleak. Whatever we called it, we agreed that the book has many "comic" scenes. We shared some of them, including the "country club" dinner party with the General, the Congressman and the "Asian expert" Richard Hedd.

But what did we make of the ending? We discussed variousideas, including the idea of nihilism (particularly represented by Man); the hypocrisy of fighting for "independence and freedom" (a regular catchcry during the book) only to have it taken away upon victory; and the fact that at the end our narrator is en route back to the USA, this time as a "real" refugee. He implies that he (that they, on the boat with him) might still be looking for a "just cause", but right now they just want to live. He's finally liberated from his old life, as free, we decided, as you can be in the circumstances, which doesn't necessarily say a lot! So, is it a cynical ending, a realistic ending, a hopeful one?

Finally, we briefly commented on some of Australia's writers from immigrant backgrounds, including Nam Le, Anh Do and Alice Pung.

PRESENT: 8 members

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