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As might be expected of a bicultural author, Nguyen's book looks at the Vietnam War from different perspectives and gives the lie to the way many Americans tend to think about the conflict.

Two sides of the coin

Jul 29, 2016 5:50 AM

The Sympathizer
By Viet Thanh Nguyen
Published by Grove Atlantic
393 pages, S$24.50
Rating: A

EARLIER this year, Vietnamese-American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen had millions of readers across the world scratching their heads over the proper pronunciation of "Nguyen" when he clinched the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with his debut work, The Sympathizer. Is it pronounced "Ng-when" or "Nu-en" or simply "When"?

Less mystifying, however, are the reasons why the novel won the Pulitzer, as well as a passel of other awards and recognition including the Edgar Award for Best First Novel and The New York Times Book Review Book of the Year.

Set during the Vietnam War and its aftermath, the novel is incredibly smart, insightful, pacey and humorous. As might be expected of a bicultural author - Nguyen was born in Vietnam but fled to the United States during the war - The Sympathizer looks at the conflict from different perspectives and gives the lie to the way many Americans tend to think about the war.

As other cultural observers have previously pointed out, despite the fact that the Americans lost the war, Hollywood movies such as Apocalypse Now (1979) and Platoon (1986) depict US soldiers as courageous, noble and sacrificial - thus winning the war for global sympathy. The same, of course, can be said about more recent films about the Iraq War, such as Jarhead (2005) and American Sniper (2014).

The Sympathizer tries to do the opposite by reminding us that there are always competing accounts of history, and that popular narratives are not the only legitimate ones (a particularly important lesson perhaps for Singaporean readers struggling to understand the country's most contentious political episodes).

The Sympathizer opens thrillingly with the fall of Saigon in 1975. As the North Vietnamese troops surround the city, the South Vietnamese are forced to flee their homes in what became the largest helicopter evacuation in history, known as Operation Frequent Wind - an unfortunate name that would be mocked thereafter.

The novel's nameless narrator is a South Vietnamese captain who has been tasked with deciding who gets to go on the helicopters - and who gets left behind. As he strikes out the names of those who don't get to evacuate, he confesses: "Every stroke of my pen through a name felt like a death sentence . . . Perhaps it was not correct, politically speaking, for me to feel sympathy for them, but my mother would have been one of them if she were alive."

Therein lies the rub: the captain is a man who feels sympathy for everyone on every side of the conflict. This tendency helps account for the fact that he is actually a spy for his army's enemy - the Viet Cong. When he, along with thousands of other South Vietnamese, go to the United States to start a new life, the captain continues to spy on his expatriate Vietnamese community as some of them hatch a wild plot to take back South Vietnam from the communists.

The funniest part of the novel is when the captain is hired by Hollywood to be a technical adviser for its Vietnam War movie project titled The Hamlet. Here, the megalomaniac director shouts and throws tantrums as Francis Ford Coppola often did on the set of Apocalypse Now, while the the Thespian - a thinly disguised stand-in for Marlon Brando - croaks: "The whore! The whore!"

But things go awry and the captain's cover is blown, forcing him to recount in prison all the facts of his involvement with the communists - the act of which becomes the narrative of the novel.

Writer Nguyen isn't just interested in historical memory; his novel also addresses the way non-white American are rendered invisible in the eyes of white America until they too forget their own unique memories and perspectives. The Sympathizer is a novel for our time - now that migration issues have become more pressing than ever.