“I took myself far off from my own presence, far indeed, and made myself an object. What else could it mean for me but an amputation, an excision, a hemorrhage that spattered my body with black blood? But I did not want this revision, this thematization. All I wanted was to be a man amongst other men. I wanted to come lithe and young into a world and build it together.”– Frantz Fanon, “The Fact of Blackness”, Black Skin, White Masks
Seething with unconcealed rage, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer is an all-out, uncensored retaliation against the Vietnam war and all its fallout. With prose so hard-boiled, its narrative almost serves as but a vessel for its scathing, multi-tiered post-colonial commentary, its characters embodying various tenets of the Vietnam war and post-colonial discourse.
The protagonist, a half-French, half-Vietnamese sleeper (communist spy) is a bastard. Rejected by his fellow countrymen, yet not European/American enough for his host country, he fits in nowhere. Nameless and faceless, he represents the hapless Orient with a twist- he is subversive through and through; “a man of two faces”. His is a divided, mosaic identity. A mixed-breed denied a rung in the hierarchies of race and class, I venture to suggest that he is communist because it is only in this method of organization can he find his place. Not as a “Vietnamese”, “French”, or “American”, but as a unit in a system alleging equality.
There are multiple references to Vietnam as a woman, as feminine, and to America, or the West, as male. The allusions to rape gets increasingly clearer, culminating in the protagonist’s actual raping of a squid.
If this book had chapter titles, I would have loved to see this section titled “The Rape of the Squid”– in allusion to Pope’s Rape of the Lock: it is a scene in which its blown-out-of-proportion literal grotesqueness overshadows its excusable immorality.
Expecting to be chastised for masturbating with a squid, the protagonist defends himself: his deed in no way equals the obscenity of murder and torture. This parallel is, of course, by no means coincidental. Rape- an uninvited, often violent, traumatic invasion- encapsulates Nguyen’s unflinching critique of the Vietnam war. The unbidden war not only cost an incredible number of lives, America’s involvement was (at that time) seen as something Vietnam “needed”: placing the blame on the victim is a game often played in rape.
The other key tenet of representation is explored with the meta fictional making of a movie. Orientalism’s creation of the oriental cannot get any more obvious with the Auteur’s creation of The Hamlet. He creates- literally- the orient, catering to occidental tastes, fantasies and imaginings.
Edward Said writes, “Orientalism [is] a Wastern style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient… as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient than it is a veritable discourse about the Orient… a system of knowledge about the Orient, an accepted grid for filtering the Orient into Western Consciousness.” (Said, Introduction to Orientalism).
The movie plays out dramatically Said’s words: The Auteur conveniently replaces Vietnamese with Filipinos- both are basically the same. Filtered through typical Occidental attitudes, the Asians, stripped of their unique customs, language and beliefs, are an all-in-one Oriental face to him. (Indeed, the protagonist’s American counterparts do not care that he is Eurasian, an important distinction to him- all Orientals are one and the same.) The protagonist has to fight for the Asian characters to be given a voice as they are rendered voiceless background props in a movie about them. This re-creation of an Oriental scene is titled, metaphorically and physically, with an Occidentalist label: “The Hamlet”- the complexities of the East must be packaged palatably for Western consumption.
The only “Orient” given a ‘proper’ role- as an interrogated, tortured Viet Cong- attains this distinction at a price. To achieve “fame” in the Western media, he lets himself get spat on, beaten, covered in vomit and blood and strapped to a wooden board. He wins Western audiences’ recognition at the loss of his dignity. Nguyen’s introduction of this pathetic, infuriating character suggests his own anger, pity and admiration at the lengths the fawning Orient would go to get a pat on the head by his Western counterparts.
It is easy to read an objective account of the Vietnam war. It is easy to discuss post-colonialism in a humanities class with the vigour of students many times removed from the tyranny of colonialism.
Reading The Sympathizer was difficult. Laced with barbwire anger, written decades after the events it describes, this narrative is a wake-up call to its readers. Colonialism has fallen, but its pillars still stand.
Orientalism, the tendency to recreate people groups in order to dominate and control them, has branched out from tyrannising only Eastern groups since Said’s time. It is carried out again and again by anyone attempting to justify their actions against another- labelling such victims as ‘violent’, ‘dangerous’, ‘ignorant’, ‘lost’, ‘dumb’, ‘stupid’, ‘extremist’– and therefore deny them rights and a voice. The Vietnam war is but one overt, bloody example of these everyday occurrences. Acclaimed as the book is for its unique take on a famous historical event, it perhaps is so well received also because of how it resonates with the here and now. With our contemporary issues.
The sharp-edged style of prose may be a stumbling block, but this book is a necessary read, especially for people in our generation.
If you have enjoyed reading this post, do check out my post on Everything I Never Told Youfor another dose of post-colonial critique. If you prefer a change of scenery, my critique on The Secret Historytakes you back in time to the Classics and unravels the implications of Ancient Greek Dionysian madness.