Sometimes you have complicated feelings about a book. I certainly do about this Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the Vietnam War narrated by a Vietnamese communist sleeper agent. Wonderfully written, dark, evocative, satirical and suspenseful; there is much to savor and enjoy, but looking at yourself through the lens of someone who is less than sympathetic can be exhausting. This is not to say that it isn’t well worth reading, just that it takes fortitude and some grace to really see how white privileged Americans are perceived. In that sense it probably should be required reading in this new age that dawned on January 20, 2017!
The book is written as a confession by a Vietnamese communist sleeper agent who was the aide-de-camp to the Vietnamese general leading the anti communist forces in Saigon and with whom the United States had a close relationship. When the story begins we know that our narrator is being held in an unknown prison and is required by the Commandant of the prison to write a confession. The confession begins in the days shortly before the evacuation of US personnel from Saigon and we soon realize that the narrator has been a spy for the communists throughout the war and his accumulated efforts have led to the downfall of Saigon. The agent of course was looking forward to being rewarded and celebrating the communist take over but instead, because of his close relationships and his excellent English ability they ask him to evacuate with the general and his family to the United States. Although our narrator resists this assignment, he is eventually persuaded that keeping close tabs on any potential resistance the general might drum up in the US is the best use of his talents. But once in the US and far from his ideological base. we slowly begin to see that the agent really is of two minds and that his talent for seeing things from both sides, which at one time might have been a virtue, is now interfering with his ability to be loyal and to sustain his motivation for his cause.
Some of the most biting satire and perceptive insights occur when our narrator is recruited to be in a movie about the Vietnam War, directed by a famous American. The narrator’s ability to skewer the insanely one sided viewpoint of the movie’s story line and reveal the offensive treatment of the Vietnamese movie extras is both hilarious and embarrassing. I don’t think I will ever watch a movie about the Vietnam war in the same way again.
Nguyen’s goal, he says in an interview, was to write a novel that “directly confronts the history of the American war in Vietnam from the Vietnamese American point of view… I wanted to be very critical of the Americans in Vietnam and not adopt the usual position of Vietnamese Americans, which is either to be grateful to be rescued by Americans or conciliatory, and not directly confrontational…” He has more than succeeded in doing that but in doing so he has also humanized all the factions and actors and has cleared away the simplistic one sided motives of the US’s participation and replaced it with something more complicated, yet more true.
Brenda’s Rating: *****( 5 out of 5 Stars)
Recommend this book to: Keith, Marian and Ken.
Book Study Worthy: Yes! (Plan extra time!)
Read in ebook format.