Monday, September 26, 2016
The meaning of "nothing" and other thoughts about the conclusion of The Sympathizer
Book group pretty much concurred yesterday that there were many fine things in Viet Tranh Nguyen's The Sympathizer - lots of material, lots of good writing, smart thinking about political movements and ideologies - and probably many things that could have been cut from this otherwise impressive novel: the imprisonment and torture section was hard to read, confusing, and too lengthy; the movie-set sequence seemed peripheral, to cite two examples. At LR said there were a lot of characters but most didn't really com to life; MR made the wise observation that they're not entirely characters - they are part of an allegory. Yes, that seems right, but an allegory for what? I suggested the obvious, that the unnamed narrator (sometimes called The Captain) is a representation of Vietnam, divided, torn between Europe and Asia, between capitalism and communism, between complicity with the enemy and resistance. Over the course of the novel I grew to appreciate more the portrayal of the insurrection - yes, it is believable that 100 or so right-wing exiled men would dream of returning to Vietnam and liberating the people from Communist rule - and if there were such a movement if would end in folly and tragedy, as in this novel. On the other hand I never quite bought into the narrator's devotion to the cause - would he really assassinate two innocent men, one of whom was his friend, just to keep up his cover as a spy? He never seems devoted to any cause - he seems like an outsider, and one who more likely would have settled into life in America and made his fortune. We spent a lot of time discussing the philosophical conclusion of the novel, in which the narrator realizes that "nothing" is more important than "freedom," and in a sense sheds both communism and imperialism and becomes a nihilist - yes, that's quite believable, that seems in line with his outsider status and his chilly indifference to others. If he makes it back to the U.S. as one of the boat people, he'll fit in just fine.