I told two friends that I was reading a book about a Vietnamese spy living in America after the Vietnamese war and that it was really funny, and they replied in the same way, ‘That doesn’t sound funny’. And indeed, the central drive of the book, the questions and most of the scenes that make up the narrative are very dark indeed.
But the protagonist IS very funny, in a dark way, with such wit and incisive, cutting observations. It’s a complex reaction: laughter and horror all at once that reflects the constant double vision of the book: a mixed-race hero, reconciling and unreconciled to his Western and Eastern race and culture and location, a spy for the North, infiltrating the South Vietnamese military refugees, who have emigrated from Vietnam, and immigrated to the USA, communities within communities full of conflict and tension, forces that seem opposed at times, and mirrored at others.
It brings to my mind Salman Rushdie, how comic his voice while tackling big questions of history and morality, as in Midnight’s Children and the Satanic Verses. And this too, is a major work, a deep exploration of a part of history, of political and philosophical systems and regimes, and I found it thrillingly engaging.
I found myself making book ears on pages that struck me. The first one simply signalled how beautiful I think Nguyen’s prose is: at the sad burial of the wife and child of the protaganist’s friend, ‘I tried believing that those two bodies were not truly dead but simply rags, shed by emigrants journeying to a land beyond human cartography.’
I know that not all the reviewers here were engaged by the book, but if you’re Asian growing up in North America, there will be parts that make you laugh out loud, the Chair of the department who had ‘hung an elaborate Oriental rug on his wall, in lieu, I suppose, of an actual Oriental’. His description of an immigrant life is as spot-on as I’ve read: ‘we did not simply life in two cultures’ but lived displaced, in ‘two time zones, the here and the there, the present and the past… reluctant time travelers… going in circles’.
I won’t spoil the section by quoting it extensively but where the expert in Vietnamese history and Asian culture, Dr. Hedd, lectures the Vietnamese General and protagonist on the American concept of happiness, and colonial history, and Vietnam, there is a page that sums up so well the improved vision of minorities and outsiders: the General knew ‘as a nonwhite person… he must be patient with white people, who were easily scared by the nonwhite… We were the greatest anthropogists ever of the American people… and we certainly knew white people better than they ever knew us.’ Their relatives read their ‘field notes’ with ‘hilarity, confusion, and awe’.
But of course, the book is much more than that, a page-turner with something profound to say about politics and ideology and the human condition, and incredible social commentary and social history. It really is one of the best books that I’ve read in recent years. Amazing.