Viet Thanh Nguyen is a finalist for the 2016 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction for The Sympathizer. The novel follows the story of a captain in the South Vietnamese army caught between duty and loyalty. Working as a Communist undercover agent, he must operate between two worlds—one of the heart, and one of the mind. Blending humor and sincerity, Nguyen presents a sharp exploration of politics, love, and the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The following is an excerpt from the novel.
I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times, when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you—that is a hazard, I must confess. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear.
The month in question was April, the cruelest month. It was the month in which a war that had run on for a very long time would lose its limbs, as is the way of wars. It was a month that meant everything to all the people in our small part of the world and nothing to most people in the rest of the world. It was a month that was both an end of a war and the beginning of . . . well, “peace” is not the right word, is it, my dear Commandant? It was a month when I awaited the end behind the walls of a villa where I had lived for the previous five years, the villa’s walls glittering with broken brown glass and crowned with rusted barbed wire. I had my own room at the villa, much like I have my own room in your camp, Commandant. Of course, the proper term for my room is an “isolation cell,” and instead of a housekeeper who comes to clean every day, you have provided me with a baby-faced guard who does not clean at all. But I am not complaining. Privacy, not cleanliness, is my only prerequisite for writing this confession.
While I had sufficient privacy in the General’s villa at night, I had little during the day. I was the only one of the General’s officers to live in his home, the sole bachelor on his staff and his most reliable aide. In the mornings, before I chauffeured him the short distance to his office, we would breakfast together, parsing dispatches at one end of the teak dining table while his wife oversaw a well-disciplined quartet of children at the other, ages eighteen, sixteen, fourteen, and twelve, with one seat empty for the daughter studying in America. Not everyone may have feared the end, but the General sensibly did. A thin man of excellent posture, he was a veteran campaigner whose many medals had been, in his case, genuinely earned. Although he possessed but nine fingers and eight toes, having lost three digits to bullets and shrapnel, only his family and confidants knew about the condition of his left foot. His ambitions had hardly ever been thwarted, except in his desire to procure an excellent bottle of Bourgogne and to drink it with companions who knew better than to put ice cubes in their wine. He was an epicurean and a Christian, in that order, a man of faith who believed in gastronomy and God; his wife and his children; and the French and the Americans. In his view, they offered us far better tutelage than those other foreign Svengalis who had hypnotized our northern brethren and some of our southern ones: Karl Marx, V. I. Lenin, and Chairman Mao. Not that he ever read any of those sages! That was my job as his aide-de-camp and junior officer of intelligence, to provide him with cribbed notes on, say, The Communist Manifesto or Mao’s Little Red Book. It was up to him to find occasions to demonstrate his knowledge of the enemy’s thinking, his favorite being Lenin’s question, plagiarized whenever the need arose: Gentlemen, he would say, rapping the relevant table with adamantine knuckles, what is to be done? To tell the General that Nikolay Chernyshevsky actually came up with the question in his novel of the same title seemed irrelevant. How many remember Chernyshevsky now? It was Lenin who counted, the man of action who took the question and made it his own.
In this gloomiest of Aprils, faced with this question of what should be done, the general who always found something to do could no longer do so. A man who had faith in the mission civilisatrice and the American Way was at last bitten by the bug of disbelief. Suddenly insomniac, he took to wandering his villa with the greenish pallor of a malarial patient. Ever since our northern front had collapsed a few weeks before in March, he would materialize at my office door or at my room in the villa to hand off a snatch of news, always gloomy. Can you believe it? he would demand, to which I said one of two things: No, sir! or Unbelievable! We could not believe that the pleasant, scenic coffee town of Ban Me Thuot, my Highlands hometown, had been sacked in early March. We could not believe that our president, Thieu, whose name begged to be spit out of the mouth, had inexplicably ordered our forces defending the Highlands to retreat. We could not believe that Da Nang and Nha Trang had fallen, or that our troops had shot civilians in the back as they all fought madly to escape on barges and boats, the death toll running to the thousands. In the secret privacy of my office, I dutifully snapped pictures of these reports, which would please Man, my handler. While they pleased me, too, as signs of the regime’s inevitable erosion, I could not help but feel moved by the plight of these poor people. Perhaps it was not correct, politically speaking, for me to feel sympathy for them, but my mother would have been one of them if she were alive. She was a poor person, I was her poor child, and no one asks poor people if they want war. Nor had anyone asked these poor people if they wanted to die of thirst and exposure on the coastal sea, or if they wanted to be robbed and raped by their own soldiers. If those thousands still lived, they would not have believed how they had died, just as we could not believe that the Americans—our friends, our benefactors, our protectors—had spurned our request to send more money. And what would we have done with that money? Buy the ammunition, gas, and spare parts for the weapons, planes, and tanks the same Americans had bestowed on us for free. Having given us the needles, they now perversely no longer supplied the dope. (Nothing, the General muttered, is ever so expensive as what is offered for free.)
At the end of our discussions and meals, I lit the General’s cigarette and he stared into space, forgetting to smoke the Lucky Strike as it slowly consumed itself in his fingers. In the middle of April, when the ash stung him awake from his reverie and he uttered a word he should not have, Madame silenced the tittering children and said, If you wait much longer, we won’t be able to get out. You should ask Claude for a plane now. The General pretended not to hear Madame. She had a mind like an abacus, the spine of a drill instructor, and the body of a virgin even after five children. All of this was wrapped up in one of those exteriors that inspired our Beaux Arts–trained painters to use the most pastel of watercolors and the fuzziest of brushstrokes. She was, in short, the ideal Vietnamese woman. For this good fortune, the General was eternally grateful and terrified. Kneading the tip of his scorched finger, he looked at me and said I think it’s time to ask Claude for a plane. Only when he resumed studying his damaged finger did I glance at Madame, who merely raised an eyebrow. Good idea, sir, I said.
Claude was our most trusted American friend, our relationship so intimate he once confided in me to being one-sixteenth Negro. Ah, I had said, equally smashed on Tennessee bourbon, that explains why your hair is black, and why you tan well, and why you can dance the cha-cha like one of us. Beethoven, he said, was likewise of hexadecimal descent. Then, I said, that explains why you can carry the tune of “Happy Birthday” like no one’s business. We had known each other for more than two decades, ever since he had spotted me on a refugee barge in ’54 and recognized my talents. I was a precocious nine-year old who had already learned a decent amount of English, taught to me by a pioneering American missionary. Claude supposedly worked in refugee relief. Now his desk was in the American embassy, his assignment ostensibly to promote the development of tourism in our war-stricken country. This, as you might imagine, required every drop he could squeeze from a handkerchief soaked with the sweat of the can-do American spirit. In reality, Claude was a CIA man whose time in this country dated back to the days when the French still ruled an empire. In those days, when the CIA was the OSS, Ho Chi Minh looked to them for help in fighting the French. He even quoted America’s Founding Fathers in his declaration of our country’s independence. Uncle Ho’s enemies say he spoke out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, but Claude believed he saw both sides at once. I rang Claude from my office, down the hall from the General’s study, and informed him in English that the General had lost all hope. Claude’s Vietnamese was bad and his French worse, but his English was excellent. I point this out only because the same thing could not be said of all his countrymen.
It’s over, I said, and when I said it to Claude it finally seemed real. I thought Claude might protest and argue that American bombers might yet fill our skies, or that American air cavalry might soon ride on gunships to our rescue, but Claude did not disappoint. I’ll see what I can arrange, he said, a murmur of voices audible in the background. I imagined the embassy in disarray, teletypes overheating, urgent cables crisscrossing between Saigon and Washington, the staff working without respite, and the funk of defeat so pungent it overwhelmed the air conditioners. Amid short tempers, Claude stayed cool, having lived here so long he barely perspired in the tropical humidity. He could sneak up on you in the dark, but he could never be invisible in our country. Although an intellectual, he was of a peculiarly American breed, the muscular kind who rowed crew and who flexed substantial biceps. Whereas our scholarly types tended to be pale, myopic, and stunted, Claude was six-two, had perfect vision, and kept himself in shape by performing two hundred push-ups each morning, his Nung houseboy squatting on his back. During his free time, he read, and whenever he visited the villa, a book was tucked under his arm. When he arrived a few days later, Richard Hedd’s Asian Communism and the Oriental Mode of Destruction was the paperback he carried.
The book was for me, while the General received a bottle of Jack Daniel’s—a gift I would have preferred if given the choice. Nevertheless, breathless they might have been lifted from the transcript of a teenage girls’ fan club, except that the excited giggling came from a pair of secretaries of defense, a senator who had visited our country for two weeks to find facts, and a renowned television anchor who modeled his enunciation on Moses, as played by Charlton Heston. The reason for their excitement was found in the significant type of the subtitle, On Understanding and Defeating the Marxist Threat to Asia. When Claude said everyone was reading this how-to manual, I said I would read it as well. The General, who had cracked open the bottle, was in no mood to discuss books or chitchat, not with eighteen enemy divisions encircling the capital. He wanted to discuss the plane, and Claude, rolling his glass of whiskey between his palms, said the best he could do was a black flight, off the books, on a C-130. It could hold ninety-two paratroopers and their gear, as the General well knew, having served in the Airborne before being called on by the president himself to lead the National Police. The problem, as he explained to Claude, was that his extended family alone amounted to fifty-eight. While he did not like some of them, and in fact despised a few, Madame would never forgive him if he did not rescue all of her relations.
And my staff, Claude? The General spoke in his precise, formal English. What of them? Both the General and Claude glanced at me. I tried to look brave. I was not the senior officer on the staff, but as the aide-de-camp and the officer most fluent in American culture, I attended all the General’s meetings with Americans. Some of my countrymen spoke English as well as I, although most had a tinge of an accent. But almost none could discuss, like I, baseball standings, the awfulness of Jane Fonda, or the merits of the Rolling Stones versus the Beatles. If an American closed his eyes to hear me speak, he would think I was one of his kind. Indeed, on the phone, I was easily mistaken for an American. On meeting in person, my interlocutor was invariably astonished at my appearance and would almost always inquire as to how I had learned to speak English so well. In this jackfruit republic that served as a franchise of the United States, Americans expected me to be like those millions who spoke no English, pidgin English, or accented English. I resented their expectation. That was why I was always eager to demonstrate, in both spoken and written word, my mastery of their language. My vocabulary was broader, my grammar more precise than the average educated American. I could hit the high notes as well as the low, and thus had no difficulty in understanding Claude’s characterization of the ambassador as a “putz,” a “jerkoff” with “his head up his ass” who was in denial about the city’s imminent fall. Officially, there’s no evacuation, said Claude, because we’re not pulling out any time soon.
The General, who hardly ever raised his voice, now did. Unofficially, you are abandoning us, he shouted. All day and night planes depart from the airport. Everyone who works with Americans wants an exit visa. They go to your embassy for these visas. You have evacuated your own women. You have evacuated babies and orphans. Why is it that the only people who do not know the Americans are pulling out are the Americans? Claude had the decency to look embarrassed as he explained how the city would erupt in riots if an evacuation was declared, and perhaps then turn against the Americans who remained. This had happened in Da Nang and Nha Trang, where the Americans had fled for their lives and left the residents to turn on one another. But despite this precedent, the atmosphere was strangely quiet in Saigon, most of the Saigonese citizenry behaving like people in a scuppered marriage, willing to cling gamely to each other and drown so long as nobody declared the adulterous truth. The truth, in this case, was that at least a million people were working or had worked for the Americans in one capacity or another, from shining their shoes to running the army designed by the Americans in their own image to performing fellatio on them for the price, in Peoria or Poughkeepsie, of a hamburger. A good portion of these people believed that if the communists won—which they refused to believe would happen—what awaited them was prison or a garrote, and, for the virgins, forced marriage with the barbarians. Why wouldn’t they? These were the rumors the CIA was propagating.
So—the General began, only to have Claude interrupt him. You have one plane and you should consider yourself lucky, sir. The General was not one to beg. He finished his whiskey, as did Claude, then shook Claude’s hand and bid him good-bye, never once letting his gaze fall away from Claude’s own. Americans liked seeing people eye to eye, the General had once told me, especially as they screwed them from behind. This was not how Claude saw the situation. Other generals were only getting seats for their immediate families, Claude said to us in parting. Even God and Noah couldn’t save everyone. Or wouldn’t, anyway.
THE SYMPATHIZER © 2015 by Viet Thanh Nguyen; used with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc.
Read more from the finalists of the 2016 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction
- “A Contract Overseas” by Mia Alvar
- The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
- Mr. and Mrs. Doctor by Julie Iromuanya
- Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng
- Interview with the finalists
Read other excerpts from the 2016 PEN Literary Award winners and finalists here.