Viet Thanh Nguyen, The sympathizer (#BookReview)

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The sympathizerA cover blurb on my edition of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer, captures the novel perfectly when it calls it “intelligent, relentlessly paced, and savagely funny” (Wall Street Journal). I loved reading it. It’s quite coincidental that I read this straight after Hoa Pham’s Lady of the realm (my review) but they make an interesting pairing because both deal with the Vietnam (or American) War and its aftermath, both are written in first person from a Vietnamese character’s point of view, and both question what happens when revolutions win. But, their approaches couldn’t be more different.

The sympathizer starts with an in-your-face statement by a never-named narrator: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” It is April 1975 and the war has ended with the capture of Saigon by the North Vietnamese Army, but in the second paragraph we discover something else about our narrator. He is not talking to us but to a “Commandant”. So, where is he, and why is he talking to a Commandant? We don’t fully find out until near the end, although we soon discover that he is being held captive and is writing his “confession”. The story he tells, the story we read, is his confession. And what he confesses to is his life as a North Vietnamese mole in the close employ of a South Vietnamese General.

In this role, he leaves Saigon in the chaotic evacuation and ends up in Southern California, still working (now unpaid) for the General, while at the same time sending covert reports back to his “aunt” in Paris. In other words, in the USA, he maintains his life as a man of “two faces”, a man who is “able to see any issues from both sides”. He can do this, not only because of his role as a mole, but also because he is a bastard, the son of a Vietnamese woman and a French priest who had seduced her and had never acknowledged his son. With feet in both camps – the Orient and the Occident – he is well-placed to comment on their respective cultures and actions while, at the same time, symbolising their conflicts, confusions and misunderstandings. Near the end he says:

I was always ever divided, although it was only partially my fault. While I chose to live two lives and be a man of two minds, it was hard not to, given how people had always called me a bastard. Our country itself was cursed, bastardised, partitioned into north and south, and if it could be said of us that we chose division and death in our uncivil war, that was also only partially true. We had not chosen to be debased by the French, to be divided by them into an unholy trinity of north, centre and south, to be turned over to the great powers of capitalism and communism for further bisection …

What makes this book such a great read – besides its heart and themes – is its writing. Nguyen migrated to the USA with his parents when he was 4 years old. In the notes at the back of my edition, he describes growing up in a Vietnamese enclave in California, and how he’d decided that he couldn’t live life well with two languages, so decided to “master one and ignore the other. But in mastering that language and its culture, I learned too well how Americans viewed Vietnamese”. This seems to the main driver for this book – to tell a story about the Vietnam War from a Vietnamese perspective – but his aim is wider than that too. It is to comment on war, on its futility, and on the way American culture seems to thrive on it.

The first chapter introduces us to the central feature of Nguyen’s writing, satire, and my, it shows how well he mastered his adopted language. If the pace is relentless, as the Wall Street Journal says, so is the satire. Its targets are broad, and non-discriminatory, though, admittedly, American life and culture bear the major brunt. In Chapter 3, he discusses prostitution:

I am merely noting that the creation of native prostitutes to service foreign privates is an inevitable outcome of a war of occupation, one of those nasty little side effects of defending freedom that all the wives, sisters, girlfriends, mothers, pastors, and politicians in Smallville, USA, pretend to ignore behind waxed and buffed wall of teeth as they welcome their soldiers home, ready to treat any unmentionable afflictions with the penicillin of American goodness.

The language is sly and wry, as our narrator of the divided-soul teases us – provokes us – again and again with dualities and paradoxes. Literally, he is a communist sympathiser, but his true sympathies are broader. “Although it’s not correct, politically speaking”, he says, he feels “sympathy” for the South Vietnamese poor who were attacked by their own soldiers. “No one asks poor people if they want war”, he writes.

And so the book continues. There are comic set-pieces such as his role as a Vietnamese expert on the making of a film that reads very much like Apocalypse Now. The experience teaches him that not controlling the way you are represented results in “a kind of death”. There are also awful scenes of torture and violence, including those where he is ordered by the General, even in the USA, to eliminate apparent opponents. He says of the General’s plans:

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.

This idea of “freedom and independence” is the complex conundrum that underpins the fundamental irony of the book, from its opening chapters when Ho Chi Minh is quoted as saying “Nothing is more important than independence and freedom”. What these mean, what people do in their name, and why so often they are taken away by the very people who called for them, are scrutinised by Nguyen via his narrator.

The sympathizer is, in many ways, a bitter novel, because it sees clearly into the human heart, and its messy, divided nature, its “moth-eaten moral covers” – but the bitterness is offset by a sense of resilience and a belief that it need not be like this. A big thanks to my Californian friend Carolyn for sending me this.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) was also impressed by this novel.

Viet Thanh Nguyen,
The sympathizer
New York: Grove Press, 2015
ISBN: 9780802124944

Anthony Doerr, All the light we cannot see (Review)

Anthony Doerr, All the light we cannot seeJust when you thought that there couldn’t possibly be another angle to writing about World War 2, up comes another book that does just that, like, for example, Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer prize-winning All the light we cannot see. I had, of course, heard of it, but it wasn’t high on my reading agenda until it was chosen as my reading group’s September book. I wasn’t sorry we chose it, because I do, in fact, like World War 2 stories, and Doerr’s turned out to be an engaging one – warm, generous but not sentimental, and highly readable despite its alternating time-frames, locations and characters.

I’ve read several and reviewed some World War 2 novels and memoirs. Many have been about Jews and the Holocaust, such as Imre Kertesz’s Fateless, Hans Bergner’s Between sea and sky, Marcus Zusak’s The book thief, and two memoirs, Halina Rubin’s  Journeys with my mother and Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, sister. A couple have been about the fighters, such as Alan Gould’s The lakewoman and Richard Flanagan’s The narrow road to the deep north. Some have drawn on the perspectives of children and young people – Zusak’s The book thief, Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the river and, of course, Anne Frank’s The diary of a young girl. Doerr’s book fits into this last group, but is different again. Zusak’s and Hegi’s girls are non-Jewish Germans, and Anne Frank is of course a Jewish girl in Amsterdam. These books focus on the Holocaust. Doerr’s does not. His interest is the personal experience of his young people – a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, born around 1928, and an orphan German boy, Werner, born around 1927. Their stories – Marie-Laure’s birth in Paris and flight with her father to Saint-Malo after Paris is occupied, and Werner’s childhood and youth in Germany followed by his war experience in Russia, Central Europe and France – are told in parallel until they inevitably meet.

Marie-Laure and Werner are nicely realised characters. They are ordinary young people trying to make a life for themselves in terrible times, but are extraordinary too. Marie-Laure’s childhood-onset blindness makes her initially helpless but she becomes a resourceful and imaginative young girl. Werner, the orphan, is a clever boy who develops a fascination with radios and things electrical. This leads him to a particular role in the war – tracking down partisan-resistance transmitters – that is different from most “soldier” stories.

All the light we cannot see is a big book. It has a wide, but not unwieldy, cast of characters, and a complex structure comprising two chronological sequences, within each of which the stories of our two young people alternate. This might sound difficult or confusing to read, but Doerr handles it well.

I’m not going to write a thorough review of this. Being a top-selling prize-winner, it has been reviewed widely. Instead, I’d like to share some of its themes, or ideas, because these are what interests me most. Before that though, I want to raise one issue. One review I read and some in my reading group expressed irritation at Doerr’s use of American idiom (such as people going “to the bathroom in their pants”). For some reason this sort of issue rarely worries me. Does that make me a bad reader? Perhaps. But it’s difficult, I think, to write in the language of another place and time, and when writers try to do it, it can feel forced. Some manage it (like Peter Carey’s True history of the Kelly Gang) and some compromise by relying on some well-placed words from an era. Generally, I’m happy for the author to use contemporary-to-them expression.

What you could be (Volkheimer to Werner)

What interests me most as a reader is not whether authors get these sorts of details right but questions like why is the author writing this, why has the author structured the story this way, what does the imagery mean, and so on. It is to the first of these that I’ll turn now. The novel’s overall subject matter is the obvious one – the tragedy of war, the way war destroys people’s lives – but within this are some interesting ideas.

One relates to logic and reason. Early in the novel, Marie-Laure’s locksmith father believes (or, perhaps, wants to believe) in logic:

Walk the paths of logic. Every outcome has its cause, and every predicament has its solution. Every lock its key.

This idea is reiterated in the book Marie-Laure is given by her father, Verne’s Twenty thousand leagues under the sea:

Logic, reason, pure science: these, Aronnax insists, are the proper ways to pursue a mystery. Not fables and fairy tales.

The opposing view, however, is put by Werner late in the war when he is tracking resistance transmitters:

Everybody, he is learning, likes to hear themselves talk. Hubris, like the oldest stories. They raise the antenna too high, broadcast for too many minutes, assume the world offers safety and rationality when of course it does not.

Logic and reason may work well enough in “normal” life, but during war they can stand for very little.

Somewhat related to this are the discussions about curses and luck. A major plot line concerns an ancient gem, the Sea of Flames diamond, which is said to carry a curse. It’s surely not by chance (ha-ha) that Doerr hides this stone behind the 13th door in the museum, and that his novel has 13 sections! Anyhow, here is Marie-Laure’s father on curses and luck. There are, he says:

no such things as curses. There is luck, maybe, bad or good. A slight inclination of each day toward success or failure. But no curses.


Stones are just stones and rain is just rain and misfortune is just bad luck.

Later though, when her father has been arrested and Marie-Laure is scared and alone, she conducts an imaginary conversation with him:

You will survive, ma chérie.
How can you know?
Because of the diamond in your coat pocket. Because I left it here to protect you.
All it has done is put me in more danger.
Then why hasn’t the house been hit? Why hasn’t it caught fire?
It’s a rock, Papa. A pebble. There is only luck, bad or good. Chance and physics. Remember?
You are alive.

In almost every story I’ve read about war – fiction and non-fiction – luck has played a significant role. It’s one of the things that makes war so scary. You cannot expect reason to prevail.

Finally, related to these two ideas is that of choice:

Frederick [Werner’s friend at Schulpforta, the Nazi training school] said we don’t have choices, don’t own our lives, but in the end it was Werner who pretended there were no choices …

Frederick, in fact, chose to exercise his choice by refusing to follow orders and he suffered the consequences, while Werner did as he was told – at school and later in the field (“they do as they’re told”) and suffered the consequences in a different way. Late in the novel, Werner meets Marie-Laure:

He says, “You are very brave.”
She lowers the bucket. “What is your name?”
He tells her. She says, “When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?” 

These and similar discussions thread through the book. They remind us that in war survival is largely a matter of “luck”, that reason and logic will only get you so far when you confront the chaos of war, and that, perhaps paradoxically, you do have choices even if they are between two unappealing alternatives. The ultimate tragedy is that war destroys “what you could be” – all those talents, all those dreams, are subsumed into the business of survival.

This is not a perfect book. It’s a bit sprawling, trying to do a lot with imagery that I haven’t been able to completely untangle. And I wonder about the necessity of the final decades-later chapters. However, it is a page-turning read and produced a lively discussion in my bookgroup. I’m glad I read it.

Anthony Doerr
All the light we cannot see
London: Fourth Estate, 2014
ISBN: 9780007548682 (eBook)

Adam Johnson, The orphan master’s son (Review)

Adam Johnson 2006

Adam Johnson 2006 (Courtesy: Roms69, using CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia)

Given my current reading preferences, I probably wouldn’t have read Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The orphan master’s son, if it hadn’t been for my reading group, but I’m rather glad I did. It’s a confronting novel, not only because of its brutal content, but also because it is an outsider’s critique. I always feel more comfortable if criticism comes from within, free of external agendas. However, criticism from within is scarcely possible in a totalitarian regime, so I admire Johnson for taking it on.

Now that’s off my chest, let’s get to the book. Most of you probably already know what it is about. It is set in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea during the reign of Kim Jong-il (who died in 2011) and explores the lives of citizens living under his repressive, authoritarian rule. The novel is divided into two parts: The Biography of Jun Do, and The Confessions of Commander Ga. The first part is told in third person voice, in a linear chronology. The second part, however, is more complex. As well as continuing the third person narrative, there is a first person strand by a new character, an unnamed interpreter, and an “official” strand told via loudspeakers. While each has a linear chronology, they are told at different rates resulting in the overall chronological sequence being somewhat jagged. This structure reinforces one of the main themes of the novel which has to do with stories, lies and truths, and shifting identities.

The structure is one of my reasons for liking the book. I like it when authors use technical aspects of their work, like the structure, to reinforce their intention. It adds challenge to the reading, making me think about what the author is doing and why. It also, in this case, helped distract my mind from much of the brutality of the content. In the interview with his editor David Ebershoff at the back of my edition, Johnson said that he had “to tone down much of the real darkness of North Korea”. Wow, is all I can say to that.

Anyhow, I’ve written three paragraphs without saying anything about the story or plot. The first thing to say is that Jun Do (a play on John Doe, neatly suggesting hidden or uncertain identities) and Commander Ga are the same person. In the first part, Jun Do, the titular orphan master’s son, takes part in many “adventures” on behalf of the state, including working as a tunnel soldier, kidnapping Japanese, gathering radio information on a fishing boat, and representing North Korea on a delegation to Texas after which, because they fail their assignment, he is sent to Prison 33, a prison mine. In this first part, Jun Do learns the art of survival and, importantly, the importance of stories to that survival. In the second part, Jun Do has survived the prison, killed the hated Commander Ga, and emerged, with the state’s sanction, to take his place, including moving in with Ga’s wife, the beautiful actress, Sun Moon.

It is in this part that Do/Ga’s life comes together and then starts to “unravel”, though not without his complicity and not without doing some damage of his own. The novel is beautifully plotted so that seemingly random or bizarre occurrences – such as Jun Do hearing radio signals from the “girl rower”, his chest being tattooed by a boat captain with an image of Sun Moon, and his being given a DVD of the film Casablanca – all find their place in the latter part of the novel.

“there is nothing between the citizen and the state” (interrogator)

But now I want to get back to stories. In the first part, the fishing boat crew concoct an improbable story involving Jun Do to explain the disappearance of the Second Mate, who has defected, and thereby protect themselves from retribution. In Texas, when Jun Do expresses uncertainty about repeating this story, the delegation leader, Dr Song, tells him:

Where we are from … stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly he’s be wise to start practising the piano. For us the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.

This is what Jun Do does throughout the novel. He changes to suit the role he finds himself in. He has to, to survive. In the second part of the novel, we are presented two versions of his story – the third person narrated one which we take as the “truth”, and the propaganda one broadcast over loudspeakers to all the “citizens” of Pyongyang.

Alongside these two narratives is that of our first person narrator, the interrogator, who works in Division 42, the department which extracts information from enemies of the state. A self-styled biographer, he eschews the thuggish techniques of the “rival interrogation team”, the Pubyok, although his apparently benign story collecting methods conclude with a brutal pain (electric shock) machine which aims to create

a rift in the identity— the person who makes it to the far shore will have little resemblance to the professor who now begins the crossing. In a few weeks, he will be a contributing member of a rural farm collective […]. There’s no way around it: to get a new life, you’ve got to trade in your old one.

He is, in a strange way, a voice of conscience, as he starts to question what it’s all about. Indeed, at one point he asks his father “Is it just about survival? Is that all there is?”. This question recurs near the end when Do/Ga, our interrogator’s last case, imagines a life that “would no longer be about survival and endurance”.

In most of my reading, multiple viewpoints are used to convey the idea that there are different ways of seeing things. It’s usually pretty benign, even if some of the individual perspectives are not. But in this novel, there is something sinister going on, so sinister that if you are caught out in the wrong perspective you will very likely find yourself at a prison farm (or worse). You need to make sure, in other words, that your identity matches the one the regime has for you. And this brings me to the scariest thing about the society Johnson depicts – the precariousness, or uncertainty or, even, the randomness of existence. To survive, you must believe what you are told or, as Jun Do learnt early in his life, do what you are told.

“no beginning, an unrelenting middle, and ended over and over” (Do/Ga)

I’ve said nothing, though, about the experience of reading this book. It may sound silly, given what I’ve written above, but this novel takes you on a wild ride. Besides the inevitable brutality, it has tender moments, some very funny ones, and is more than a little absurd. It asks us to accept, and believe in, Jun Do as our guide. It’s a dystopian novel with a touch of romance, adventure and mystery/thriller.

The success of a book like this rests on its authenticity, on whether we believe the truths that lie beneath the fabrication. Unfortunately, I do.

Adam Johnson
The orphan master’s son
London: Black Swan, 2013
ISBN: 9780552778251

Vale Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt, 2007 (Photo by David Shankbone, used under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0)

Frank McCourt, 2007 (Photo by David Shankbone, used under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0)

I’ve only read one of Frank McCourt’s books, his Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, Angela’s ashes. I loved it, but for some reason didn’t really feel the need to read more, though I’m sure I would have enjoyed them if I had!

Angela’s ashes was such a visceral read. I’ve never read quite such a vivid description of poverty as I found in this book. I know there are some who claim that he exaggerated it but who cares? My sense is that what he described was “real” – real either because it “really” did happen that way or because it genuinely conveyed what deep poverty “feels” like. And, the fact that he could describe such poverty in a way that could make you laugh and cry at the same time marked him out as a true storyteller. One of the, little really, scenes I remember is when he was in hospital and isolated in a ward on his own. The nurse wouldn’t let him talk to the equally lonely and isolated girl in the ward next door. The nurse would yell out to them, “Diphtheria can’t talk to Typhoid” (or vice versa). Oh dear! Just as well he had a sense of humour I reckon.

I saw the film, too, of course. As I recollect it was true to the facts but it somehow managed to convey the grimness without the accompanying humour. That was a shame really.

Anyhow, now McCourt has died. I’m sure his death will result in a resurgence of interest in his books. Commercial, yes, but why should new readers not have his books brought to their attention? There are far worse books they could be reading! Just ask Tom Keneally, who knew McCourt and was interviewed on the radio today. He said :

He is the only man I’ve known who in his mid-60s went from a school teacher pension to being a multi-millionaire and also remaining the same bloke he’d been before it all happened to him. The same whimsical, ironic, very Australian sense of humour he had. …

In the first paragraph [of Angela’s ashes] he mentions the fact that in Limerick the churches were full but he says that was because it rained all the time. It was not piety but hypothermia that filled the benches and I think you would have to search a long way back into Irish history to find such a funny line as that.

I am missing him even now. I have to say starting, as old men do, to get teary that such a grand spirit has departed this earth …