Two recent novels, The Sympathizers, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Dragonfish, by Vu Tran, are debut novels by two Vietnamese-American men, and the books have many elements in common (besides their excellence). The ndmerican media have been assuring us since Vietnam reunited, and since Western businesspeople began to go there to seek business opportunities, that the Vietnamese, known for their long memories and long view of history, are ‘over’ the Vietnam War (as if it were a disease), and that lingering ambivalence about that war resides wholly in America , where some suffer from guilt about the war, others complain that our troops were never allowed to bust loose and win the war; America’s ambivalences about the role of the military and the role of force in today’s world probably began with the loss of the Vietnam war, and those various feelings/ideas ran through the Persian Gulf War, The War in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, and are revving up with the upcoming war against ISIS or ISL. Vietnam itself has been trying to join the world economy, and many an American soldier has returned to that country, along with Western tourists, who’ve been enjoying bicycle tours of that country. Even the foodies have ‘discovered’ Vietnamese food, a wonderful combination of French and Southeast Asian. Each approach to Vietnam seems to reflect various American ‘lifestyle’ interests and the polarized Left and Right in politics.
But the backdrop of both of the two novels under consideration is absolutely the Vietnam war itself. Both authors have adopted a kind of noir quality to their writing, which seems a neat fit with the Surrealism of the war itself, and of the intrigues and duplicity that ran through the war–these novels reflect the world of Graham Greene, the English Catholic novelist who wrote so well about moral decay and corruption in Southeast Asia (among other topics and areas of the world), while focusing primarily upon those moral/ethical conflicts into which Greene places his character: the emphases have much changed, from moral ambiguity in Greene’s fiction to the worlds of violence, corruption, duplicity and rage in the work of both Nguyen and Tran. Both writers completely reject the American trope that the Vietnamese are ‘over’ the war (well, it was a series of wars, The French, The Americans, etc.). And those ideas surrounding moral corruption are key to Dragonfish, while the definition of what constitutes loyalty in extremis, and how friendships may survive or be damaged beyond repair, is the primary theme of The Sympathizer. But the war itself is both the background and the foreground in both novels, reminding us, as Americans, that though the Vietnamese may appear to be ‘over’ the war, that perhaps that’s a long term strategy to prove to Westerners that Vietnam is now a stable country worth investing in.
Of the original three Vietnamese friends in The Sympathizer, all supposedly fighting on the side of the South Vietnamese and The Americans, one is already part of the Communist insurgency, one really is a South Vietnamese soldier, and one is a sympathizer, the title character. He’s a spy, in other words, and works for a South Vietnamese general. When Vietnam is about to fall (South Vietnam/Saigon), and the general and our sympathizer are making a list of those who’ll get flights to America at the bitter end (remember those images of people clinging to helicopters atop the American embassy in Saigon?), the communists decide that the sympathizer must go to America and continue to spy upon the general and others who make it to America; he sends coded letters written in invisible ink to an alleged ‘auntie’ in Paris, who gets them to Vietnam. The interrelationships of these three men will shift as the novel unfolds; the South Vietnamese soldier’s wife and child are killed just as their plane for America is about to take off; the sympathizer falls in love with a Japanese American woman in LA, and the general begins to realize that there’s a spy in his midst. Since I can’t abide book reviews that reveal much about mysteries, suffice it to say that these three friends will meet again in Vietnam, under the commander, the original, first friend, in whose labor/reeducation camp they fall as prisoners. We are privy to some of the grimmest details of torture, the use of mind-altering drugs, and the like: the sympathizer is given the exact treatment that he gave to South Vietnamese people/soldiers/loyalists in Vietnam. The pointlessness of all this torture and hatred and proofs of loyalty is, of course, a major theme of the novel. It’s a gripping , fascinating, nail biter of a novel, brilliantly written, and the characters of these three old friends beautifully delineated. The Sympathizer is likely to end up on many a ‘best fiction ‘list this year.
Dragonsh seems even sadder, as many of the characters stumble into the roles into which Vu Tran puts them: an American police officer marries a woman who arrived from Vietnam as one of the ‘boat people’ (remember them? they are at least 3 entire groups of emigrants ago….). Her wild mood swings, inability to love, and underlying fears absolutely revert back to her childhood in Vietnam, the early death of her father, and her ambivalence about being a widowed mother with a small daughter. Having escaped Vietnam by boat, a particular group of escapees spends about three months trapped on an island off Malaysia, and those who bonded there will remeet in all sorts of bizarre–and mostly illegal–ways in Las Vegas, a perfect setting for a sleezy kind of noir mystery, and Vu Tran knows that, plays that for all it’s worth. That the cop, who’s from LA, never understands his (now departed) wife, her friends, her background, and the like, is not his fault, but it does stand in nicely for the cluelessness of Americans in attempting to understand the plight of the new immigrant, the ambivalence about leaving their homes with nothing at all, their attempts at integration in America, the new Vietnamese Mafia which has a subculture around the casinos and restaurants of Las Vegas. (One of the questions very few of us ever asked our grandparents or great grandparents, or, more recently, parents, about their fleeing their homelands: what was that like? Whom did you leave behind? What was life like there , or here in the US of A, upon arrival? We really have no idea, but I’ve certainly noticed how few Americans want to admit that they came from good peasant stock, how many Americans are ‘puffing up” their ancestry : everyone wants to have come from aristocracy, it seems). But since the characters in Dragonfish are the new immigrants, we get some sense of the radicality of the changing of cultures under the worst possible duress. And some of the gratuitous violence in this novel can definitely be traced to the rage and anger, unresolved, of what happened to them in Vietnam, the powerlessness of their lives. how loss of human life had to be written off in a moment in order to survive, make the boat’s departure, etc.
Not only are both these novels excellent reads, but we Americans have a heap to learn from them about the immigrant experience: there may be few better times to address the insights of both novels about these plights than now, with millions of emigrants roaming around the world looking for better lives, many losing said lives because of rickety boats, pirates/smugglers who reem them financially to get out, and the like: any news report these days can help make these two novels as current as anything written this year. Both books are excellent, and are reminders that the Vietnam war we have expunged from our memories are very much in the forefront of those who lost their countries, their families, their identities, over a Franco-American folly of vast proportions and consequence.