It was almost 25 years to the month that I found myself in a hotel lobby in Danang, Vietnam, surrounded by a couple dozen Vietnamese men and women, the former far outnumbering the latter. A couple of the men were fiddling with a VCR connected to a color TV while the rest of us sat around patiently, waiting for the movie to begin.
It wasn’t just any movie, though. The VHS was “Full Metal Jacket“, one of many American-made films about the Vietnam War. The Fall of Saigon was only 16 short years earlier and wounds in the US were still raw.
But ever since I was young enough to understand the war–probably when I was eight or nine (this was in the late 70s)–I couldn’t understand why Americans were taught to feel patriotic about this war. I felt quite the opposite–ashamed and baffled.
So watching “Full Metal Jacket” with more than twenty Vietnamese in a Danang hotel lobby was surreal. I don’t remember much about the movie, but I do remember the feeling of watching a movie from the US point of view with people who bore the brunt of my country’s mistakes.
I recently read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning novel, The Sympathizer, and found myself laughing out loud at some parts, amen-ing at others, and completely outraged at more, especially at the end. I’ve read non-fiction books about US policy in Vietnam from the 60s and 70s as well as novels about Vietnamese immigrants in the US. But this is the first novel of its kind and I don’t know where to start. It’s that rich and thought-provoking and necessary.
The narrator is a Eurasian captain in the South Vietnamese Army who is really a Viet Cong operative. Born to a Vietnamese teenager and an older French priest, he never feels like he fits in. During college, he studies in the US and becomes steeped in American culture, which gets him in trouble later in the story after the Fall of Saigon. He works for a General of the South Vietnamese Army, who is also the head of the secret police. (The General is one of my favorite characters.) The General, narrator, and others settle in southern California and continue fighting the war from overseas.
At one point the narrator flies to the Philippines to be a consultant for an American movie about the war. Although that movie wasn’t based on “Full Metal Jacket”, it got me thinking back to that evening in Danang. “The Movie” is a big hit in the US, but the Vietnamese immigrant communities overseas feel outraged that it doesn’t portray them as allies–in what little screen time they have. It was like they were invisible in their own country.
Early on, the reader learns the narrator is writing a confession. Most of the story is this confession until a slight plot twist toward the end, when we catch up with the narrator. What I loved about the book, among other things, were the many rich details–like the popular songs in Saigon during the war and the fashions of the times–that make it seem as if Nguyen were reaching back into his memory. But he’s about my age and left Vietnam in 1975, before he was old enough to start kindergarten.
There’s a part at the end where the narrator is asked a riddle and knows it but doesn’t understand the full meaning. When he finally figures it out, he can’t stop saying it and starts laughing hysterically. People all around him think he’s gone off his rocker. But Nguyen’s message is strong. The joke’s on all of us. I’ve read that The Sympathizer has been called an angry book, as if being angry wasn’t American.
Being American means being able to question, to speak and write freely, to form our own ideas. Somehow along the way we lost sight of these things when it came to the Vietnam War. Finally we have The Sympathizer, which gives the reader–regardless of background–many things to think about when it comes to war, history, and how we treat people different from ourselves.