The Necessity of Memory with Viet Thanh Nguyen

Student Anti-Vietnam Rally, 1968

Writing about war is never an easy task, it involves remembering what must not be forgotten, slowly treading a path in one’s memory that is never neutral. It is filled with opposing forces — of heroes and villains, of the noble and the wretched, of the conqueror and the conquered. But it must be done. This, I believe, was Viet Thanh Nguyen’s task with his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer.

In addition to books that bravely asks life the hardest questions, historical fiction is fast becoming a favorite. From the genre-bending 100 Years of Solitude by the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to a recent reading of Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (of which I wrote about in a previous post), Viet’s The Sympathizer is an unexpected but welcome addition.

I dove into the book right after Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon, and I acclimated to the nameless narrator’s tone in no time.

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.

The book is set in Vietnam in the ’70s, as South Vietnam (backed by the U.S. and its anti-Communist allies) falls to the Viet Cong (VC) or the National Liberation Front of the North. From beginning to end, the nameless narrator experiences and embodies tension: as the son of a poor Vietnamese peasant and a French priest, as an army captain and junior intelligence officer of a high-ranking General of the South when he was really a spy for the Viet Cong.

When it becomes clear that the U.S. has failed in its attempts of defeating the North, the General (along with 90+ of his extended family, friends and other high ranking officials) fled to the U.S. with the help of Claude, an American intelligence officer. The narrator engineered the trip — he secured, bribed, decided and arranged the logistics of the trip.

But this evening, with the villas hush punctuated only by occasional shouts of gunfire, he allowed himself to be querulous about how the Americans had promised us salvation from communism if we only did as we were told. They started this war, and now that they’re tired of it, they’ve sold us out, he said, pouring me another drink. But who is there to blame but ourselves? We were foolish enough to think they would keep their word.



Reading The Sympathizer throws you into the frenzy of wartime, as I was pummeled straight into the worlds of the narrator and the General. As he communicated with his childhood friend Man who was fighting for the VC, loyal only to Marx-Lenin-Mao while living in the U.S., I was given a front row seat of the life of a subversive.

The prose is indeed electric, but what drew me in even deeper was the detail and the elegance of the narrator in fulfilling his task as a sleeper agent. He was consistent with relaying information to the VC, his politics and analysis always sharp. He understood what was happening in Vietnam and knew the kind of change needed. He was loyal to the VC, and he was vigilant in ensuring that every move of the General was monitored.

The book, in as much as it portrays the Vietnam war from a different angle also lends its lens to the kind of world that imperialism (specifically U.S.) was creating. Even my home country, the Philippines, makes a cameo in the story. While living in L.A., the Captain was invited to be part of a film about Vietnam; the shooting location was to be in the Cordillera region of the Philippines. Viet wasted no time tying in the same predicament that the Philippines has been experiencing, that the narrator upon landing noticed right away:

Further evidence was found in the local newspaper, which had a few inches buried in the middle about the recent unsolved murders of political dissidents, their bullet-riddled bodies dumped in the streets. In a puzzling situation such as this, all riddles lead to one riddler, the dictator. This state of martial law was underwritten once more by Uncle Sam, who was supporting the tyrant Marcos in his efforts to stamp out not only a communist insurgency but also a Muslim one. That support included genuine made-in-the-USA planes, tanks, helicopters, artillery, armored personnel carriers, guns, ammunition and kit, just as was the case for our homeland, although on a much smaller case.


In addition to the witnessing the fate of Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines and Vietnam, he, along with other refugees had to live the immigrant experience and all of its nuances. Gloried wartime existence reduced to working at liquor stores, gasoline stations, behind the cash register at a pho restaurant.

Refugee, exile, immigrant — whatever species of displaced humans we were, we did not simply live in two cultures, as celebrants of the great American melting pot imagined. Displaced people also lived in two time zones, the here and the there, the present and the past, being as we were reluctant time travelers. But while science fiction imagined time travelers as moving forward or backward in time, this timepiece demonstrated a different chronology. The open secret of the clock, naked for all to see, was that we were only going in circles.


Last week, I ventured out to City Lights Bookstore in North Beach to catch Viet and the writer Maxine Hong Kingston speak. Maxine read from a few of her works, and Viet read from both The Sympathizer and his new book, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War.

Viet Thanh Nguyen and Maxine Hong Kingston (City Lights Bookstore, May 2016)

Both the work of thee writers speak for themselves, but I really appreciated Viet’s wisdom as he talked about the necessity of memory. He wrote about what it was like to be refugee, caught in the “twin pressures” of remembering the Vietnam War. He talked about the difference between how Americans remember the war, and how Vietnamese remembered the war.

Someone from the audience asked how it felt for him to always be othered, and if we do ever get over it. Viet, in one of the night’s many enlightening moments responded that for as long as there are racial distinctions in the U.S., thus the term Asian-American, then movements like #BlackLivesMatter will continue to exist, so No, we won’t really ever get over it.

Most importantly, in the Viet-way I’ve come to know his style, his writing, in the historical/dialectical materialism perspective of the nameless Captain, he gave me and the audience one of the most profound truths I’ve ever heard, in wartime, in our everyday lives, throughout history: that memory is a capitalist product, among many other things, and with the U.S. as a capitalist power, it can export memories it wants to preserve, that it is controlled by whoever has the means and modes of production and representation. 


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