My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Since the mid 1970s, we have not lacked for literary and film retellings and interpretations of the Vietnam War. But all of these have been told almost exclusively from an American perspective. Although the war was fought in their country, decimated their land, and killed untold numbers of their people, we have not had the Vietnamese viewpoint of events. Viet Thanh Nguyen, with his first published novel, remedies that glaring lack for us.
Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American. Born in Vietnam, he and his family were among the boat people who escaped following the fall of Saigon and the overrunning of the South by the North Vietnamese. He was raised in the United States and educated here, so he has a unique perspective of the war and its aftermath. With this novel, he has finally given voice to the previously voiceless Vietnamese people who endured the horror of the war.
The novel is written as a confession. Our narrator, whose name we never learn, is writing his account of events for the "commissar" of the Vietnamese prison/reeducation center where he is being held. We soon learn that understanding duality is key to understanding the nature of the protagonist. He is only half Vietnamese - his mother was a teenage girl who was seduced by a French Catholic priest. He was raised by his mother alone and he loves her unconditionally. She is his hero. He hates his father who never took any part in his raising, nor did he acknowledge his son. At the time that we meet him, however, both parents are already dead.
Not only is he dual in his origins, he is also balancing between two worlds, two political ideologies. He is an aide to a South Vietnamese general (also unnamed) who fought against the Communists, but, as he tells us in his opening lines, "I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds,...able to see any issue from both sides."
He is an undercover agent for the Communists. His handler is a childhood friend named Man. Our narrator is blood brothers with Man and another childhood friend, Bon. Bon is a "genuine patriot" of the South and is an assassin for the C.I.A.; Man is the true-believer Communist; the narrator is the man in the middle.
The action of the novel begins in the chaotic and terror-filled days of the fall of Saigon. The narrator wants to stay and take his place in a reunified Vietnam but he is ordered by Man to go with the general as he flees to America and to keep an eye on him there. Working through the C.I.A., the narrator manages to bribe the appropriate people to facilitate an air evacuation of the general and his extended family, as well as Bon and his wife and child and himself. As they flee, they are under fire from the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese and Bon's wife and child are killed before the plane takes off. The others make good their escape, first to the Philippines and later to California.
In Los Angeles, the narrator continues his spying and continues reporting to Man through an intermediary in Paris. He lands a clerical job with one of his former professors (he had been sent to attend college in California years earlier), and he engages in an affair with an older Japanese-American woman. He continues to observe and report on the activities of the local Vietnamese refugees, and he is able to alert Man when the general begins plans for a reinvasion of Vietnam through Thailand.
As the ragtag army comprised of former South Vietnamese soldiers who are armed and funded by Americans makes plans for its return, Man orders the narrator to stay in the United States and continue reporting, but Bon is going with the army and the narrator feels that he must accompany his blood brother to try to keep him safe. He disobeys Man's directive to his great regret.
In the last chapters of the book, we see the narrator, Bon, and the group they are with captured and imprisoned. The narrator must now endure the harsh interrogation techniques that he was taught by the Communists when he first joined their crusade. These chapters are dark indeed and were very difficult for me to read. They are the main reason that I give the book four stars instead of five. Readers with stronger stomachs might well give it five, for it is a remarkable book. It is a valuable insight into the Vietnamese view of that awful war that so consumed us, particularly people of my generation, in the 1960s and 1970s.
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