OUT OF THE MARGINS: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer

We begin the new year 2016 by featuring the first chapter of Viet Thanh Nguyen‘s acclaimed debut novel, The Sympathizer, whose narrator is “a man of two minds and divided loyalties.” A half-French, half-Vietnamese communist sleeper agent sent to America at the Fall of Saigon, this character aptly captures the divisions and contradictions inherent in many Vietnamese during and following the Vietnam War. Since its publication in April 2015, The Sympathizer has appeared on numerous “Best of” lists, including Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2015, and was awarded the ALA Carnegie Medal for Excellence. Viet Thanh Nguyen is the founder of DiaCRITICS, and co-editor for our series, Out of the Margins. 

(VIETNAM-25, 1/3) A 01 May 1975 photo shows a large pile of US-made rifles abandoned by pro-American Southern Vietnamese army soldiers collected at Nhan Nghia commune, Chau Thanh district, in the southern province of Can Tho one day after Saigon fell to communist troops. Few young Vietnamese express much interest in the war, even though it scarred the lives of the parents and grandparents. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo credit – AFP/Getty Images)

THE SYMPATHIZER — CHAPTER 1

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 every- one may have feared the end, but the General sensibly did. A thin man of excellent posture, he was a veteran campaigner whose many med- als 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 with- out 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 coun- try. 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, I took care to peruse the book’s cover, crowded with blurbs so 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.

Could they not? What would my father say? He had been a Catholic priest, but I could not remember this poor man of the cloth ever sermonizing about Noah, although admittedly I went to Mass only to daydream. But regardless of what God or Noah could do, there was little doubt that every man on the General’s staff, if given the chance, would rescue a hundred blood relatives as well as any paper ones who could afford the bribe. Vietnamese families were complicated, delicate affairs, and while sometimes I longed for one, being the only son of an ostracized mother, now was not one of those times.

***

Later that day, the president resigned. I had expected the president to abandon the country weeks ago in the manner befitting a dictator, and I spared him barely a thought as I worked on the list of evacuees. The General was fastidious and detail-oriented, habituated to making quick, hard decisions, but this was one task that he deferred to me. He was preoccupied with the matters of his office: reading the morning’s interrogation reports, attending meetings at the Joint General Staff compound, phoning his confidants as they discussed how to hold the city and yet be ready to abandon it at the same time, a maneuver as tricky as playing musical chairs to the tune of one’s most beloved song. Music was on my mind, for as I worked on the list in the nocturnal hours, I listened to American Radio Service on a Sony in my room at the villa. The songs of the Temptations and Janis Joplin and Marvin Gaye usually always made bad things bearable and good things wonderful, but not in times like these. Every stroke of my pen through a name felt like a death sentence. All of our names, from the lowest officer to the General, had been found on a list being crammed into its owner’s mouth as we broke down her door three years ago. The warning I had sent to Man had not gotten to her in time. As the policemen wrestled her to the ground, I had no choice but to reach into this communist agent’s mouth and pull from it that saliva-soaked list. Its papier-mâché existence proved that members of the Special Branch, accustomed to watching, were ourselves watched. Even had I a moment alone with her, I could not have risked my cover by telling her that I was on her side. I knew what fate awaited her. Everyone talked in the Special Branch’s interrogation cells, and she would have told my secret despite herself. She was younger than me, but she was wise enough to know what awaited her, too. For just a moment I saw the truth in her eyes, and the truth was that she hated me for what she thought I was, the agent of an oppressive regime. Then, like me, she remembered the role she had to play. Please, sirs! she cried. I’m innocent! I swear!

Three years later, this communist agent was still in a cell. I kept her folder on my desk, a reminder of my failure to save her. It was my fault, too, Man had said. When the day of liberation comes, I’ll be the one unlocking her cell. She was twenty-two when arrested, and in the folder was a picture of her at her capture, and another one of her from a few months ago, her eyes faded and her hair thinning. Our prison cells were time machines, the inmates aging much faster than they normally would. Looking at her faces, then and now, helped me with the task of selecting a few men for salvation and condemning many more, including some I liked. For several days I worked and reworked the list while the defenders of Xuan Loc were annihilated and, across our border, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. A few nights later, our ex-president secretly fled for Taiwan. Claude, who drove him to the airport, noticed how the president’s inordinately heavy suitcases clanked with something metallic, presumably a hefty share of our nation’s gold. He told me this the next morning, when he called to say that our plane was leaving in two days. I finished my list early that evening, telling the General that I had decided to be democratic and representative, choosing the highest-ranking officer, the officer everyone thought the most honest, the one whose company I liked the most, and so on. He accepted my reasoning and its inevitable consequence, that a good number of the senior officers with the most knowledge and culpability in the work of the Special Branch would be left behind. I wound up with a colonel, a major, another captain, and two lieutenants. As for myself, I reserved one seat and three more for Bon, his wife, and his child, my godson.

When the General visited me that night to commiserate, bearing the now half-empty bottle of whiskey, I asked for the favor of taking Bon with us. Although not my real brother, he was one of my two blood brothers since our school days. Man was the other, the three of us having sworn undying loyalty to one another by slicing our adolescent palms and mingling our blood in ritual handshakes. In my wallet was a black-and-white photograph of Bon and his family. Bon had the appearance of a good-looking man beaten to a pulp, except that was simply his God-given face. Not even his paratrooper’s beret and crisply ironed tiger stripe fatigues could distract from his parachute-like ears, his chin perpetually tucked into the folds of his neck, and his flat nose bent hard right, the same as his politics. As for his wife, Linh, a poet might compare her face to the harvest moon, insinuating not only its fullness and roundness but also how it was mottled and cratered, dappled with acne scars. How those two concocted a child as cute as Duc was a mystery, or perhaps simply as logical as how two negatives when multiplied together yield a positive. The General handed me the photo and said, It’s the least I could do. He’s Airborne. If our army was just Airborne men, we’d have won this war.

If . . . but there was no if, only the incontrovertible fact of the General sitting on the edge of my chair while I stood by the window, sipping my whiskey. In the courtyard, the General’s orderly fed fistfuls of secrets into a fire blazing in a fifty-five-gallon drum, making the hot night hotter. The General got up and paced my small chamber, glass in hand, clad only in his boxer shorts and a sleeveless undershirt, a midnight shadow of stubble across his chin. Only his housekeepers, his family, and myself ever saw him like this. At any hour of the day when visitors came to the villa, he would pomade his hair and don his starched khakis, the breast festooned with more ribbons than could be found in a beauty queen’s hair. But this evening, with the villa’s 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. Now there’s nowhere to go but America. There are worse places, I said. Perhaps, he said. At least we’ll live to fight again. But for now, we are well and truly fucked. What kind of toast is right for that?

The words came to me after a moment.
 Here’s blood in your eye, I said. 
Damn right.
 I forget from whom I learned this toast, or even what it meant, except that I had acquired it sometime during my years in America. The General had been to America, too, if only for a few months as a junior officer, training with a platoon of his fellows at Fort Benning in ’58, where the Green Berets inoculated him permanently against communism. In my case, the inoculation did not take. I was already undercover, part scholarship student, part spy-in-training, the lone representative of our people at a sylvan little college called Occidental, its motto Occidens Proximus Orienti. There I passed six idyllic years in the dreamy, sun-besotted world of Southern California during the sixties. Not for me the study of highways, sewage systems, or other such useful enterprises. Instead, the mission assigned to me by Man, my fellow conspirator, was to learn American ways of thinking. My war was psychological. To that end, I read American history and literature, perfected my grammar and absorbed the slang, smoked pot and lost my virginity. In short, I earned not only my bachelor’s but my master’s degree, becoming expert in all manner of American studies. Even now I can see quite clearly where I first read the words of that greatest of American philosophers, Emerson, on a lawn by an iridescent grove of jacaranda trees. My attention was divided between the exotic, tawny co-eds in halter tops and shorts, sunning themselves on beds of June grass, and the words so stark and black on a bare white page—“consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Nothing Emerson wrote was ever truer of America, but that was not the only reason I underlined his words once, twice, thrice. What had smitten me then, and strikes me now, was that the same thing could be said of our motherland, where we are nothing if not inconsistent.

***

On our last morning, I drove the General to his office at the National Police compound. My office was down the hallway from the General’s, and from there I summoned the five chosen officers for a private meeting, one by one. We leave tonight? asked the very nervous colonel, his eyes big and wet. Yes. My parents? The parents of my wife? asked the major, a crapulent devotee of the Chinese restaurants in Cholon. No. Brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews? No. Housekeepers and nannies? No. Suitcases, wardrobes, collections of china? No. The captain, who hobbled a bit because of venereal disease, threatened to commit suicide unless I found more seats. I offered him my revolver and he skulked off. In contrast, the young lieutenants were grateful. Having earned their precious positions via parental connections, they bore themselves with the herky-jerky nervousness of marionettes.

I closed the door on the last of them. When distant booms rattled the windows, I saw fire and smoke boiling from the east. Enemy artillery had ignited the Long Binh ammunition depot. Feeling a need both to mourn and to celebrate, I turned to my drawer, where I kept a fifth of Jim Beam with several ounces remaining. If my poor mother were alive, she would say, Don’t drink so much, son. It can’t be good for you. But can’t it, Mama? When one finds oneself in as difficult a situation as I did, a mole in the General’s staff, one looked for comfort wherever one could find it. I finished the whiskey, then drove the General home through a storm, the amniotic water bursting over the city a hint of the forthcoming season. Some hoped the monsoon might slow down the advancing northern divisions, but I thought that unlikely. I skipped dinner and packed my rucksack with my toiletries, a pair of chinos and a madras shirt bought at a J. C. Penney in Los Angeles, loafers, three changes of underwear, an electric toothbrush from the thieves’ market, a framed photograph of my mother, envelopes of photographs from here and America, my Kodak camera, and Asian Communism and the Oriental Mode of Destruction.

The rucksack was a gift from Claude, given in honor of my college graduation. It was the handsomest thing I owned, capable of being worn on my back or, with a tuck of a strap here and there, converted to a hand-carried valise. Fabricated of supple brown leather by an esteemed New England manufacturer, the rucksack smelled richly, mysteriously of autumn leaves, grilled lobster, and the sweat and sperm of boys’ boarding schools. A monogram of my initials was branded on the side, but the most special feature was the false bottom. Every man should have a false bottom in his luggage, Claude had said. You never know when you’ll need it. Unbeknownst to him, I used it to hide my Minox mini-camera. The cost of the Minox, a present from Man, was a few times my annual salary. It was this I had used to photograph certain classified documents to which I had access, and I thought perhaps it would be useful again. Lastly, I sorted through the rest of my books and my records, most purchased in the States and all bearing the fingerprints of memory. I had no room for Elvis or Dylan, Faulkner or Twain, and while I could replace them, my spirit was still heavy when I wrote Man’s name on the box of books and records. They were too much to bear, as was my guitar, displaying its full, reproachful hips on my bed as I left.

I finished packing and borrowed the Citroën to retrieve Bon. The military police at the checkpoints waved me by when they saw the General’s stars on the automobile. My destination was across the river, a wretched waterway lined with the shanties of refugees from the countryside, their homes and farms obliterated by pyromaniacal soldiers and clean-cut arsonists who had found their true calling as bombardiers. Past this haphazard expanse of hovels, deep in District Four, Bon and Man waited at a beer garden where the three of us had passed more drunken hours than I could recall. Soldiers and marines crowded the tables, rifles under their stools, hair cropped close by sadistic military barbers intent on revealing the contours of their skulls for some nefarious phrenological purpose. Bon poured me a glass of beer as soon as I sat down, but would not allow me to drink until he offered a toast. Here’s to reunion, he said, lifting his own glass. We’ll meet again in the Philippines! I said it was actually Guam, for the dictator Marcos was fed up with refugees and no longer accepting any more. Groaning, Bon rubbed his glass against his forehead. I didn’t think it could get any worse, he said. But now we’ve got Filipinos looking down on us? Forget the Philippines, Man said. Let’s drink to Guam instead. They say it’s where America’s day begins. And our day ends, Bon muttered.

Unlike Man and I, Bon was a genuine patriot, a republican who had volunteered to fight, having hated the communists ever since the local cadre encouraged his father, the village chief, to kneel in the village square and make his confession before forcefully inserting a bullet behind his ear. Left to his own devices, Bon was sure to go Japanese and fight to the end or even put a gun to his own head, so Man and I had persuaded him to think of his wife and child. Leaving for America was not desertion, we claimed. This was strategic retreat. We had told Bon that Man would also flee with his family tomorrow, whereas the truth was that Man would stay to witness the liberation of the south by the northern communists Bon so despised. Now Man squeezed him on the shoulder with fingers long and delicate and said, We’re blood brothers, us three. We’ll be blood brothers even if we lose this war, even if we lose our country. He looked at me and his eyes were damp. For us there is no end.

You’re right, Bon said, shaking his head vigorously to disguise the tears in his eyes. So enough sadness and gloom. Let’s drink to hope. We’ll return to take our country back. Right? He, too, looked at me. I was not ashamed of the tears in my own eyes. These men were better than any real brothers I could have had, for we had chosen each other. I raised my beer glass. Here’s to coming back, I said. And to a brotherhood that never ends. We drained our glasses, shouted for another round, threw our arms around one another’s shoulders, and settled into an hour of brotherly love and song, the music provided by a duo at the other end of the garden. The guitarist was a long-haired draft dodger, sickly pale from having lived for the last ten years in between the walls of the bar owner’s house during the day, emerging only at night. His singing partner was an equally long-haired woman of dulcet voice, her slim figure outlined by a silk ao dai the same shade as a virgin’s blush. She was singing the lyrics of Trinh Cong Son, the folk singer beloved even by the paratroopers. Tomorrow I’m going , dear . . . Her voice rose above the chatter and rain. Remember to call me home . . . My heart trembled. We were not a people who charged into war at the beck and call of bugle or trumpet. No, we fought to the tunes of love songs, for we were the Italians of Asia.

Tomorrow I’m going , dear. The city’s nights are no longer beautiful . . . If Bon knew this was the last time he would see Man for years, perhaps ever, he would never step on the airplane. Ever since our lycée days, we had fancied ourselves the Three Musketeers, all for one and one for all. Man had introduced us to Dumas: first, because he was a great novelist, and second, because he was a quadroon. Hence he was a model for us, colonized by the same French who despised him for his ancestry. An avid reader and storyteller, Man would have likely become a teacher of literature at our lycée if we had lived in a time of peace. Besides translating three of the Perry Mason mysteries of Erle Stanley Gardner into our native tongue, he had also written a forgettable Zolaesque novel under a pen name. He had studied America but never been there himself, as was the case with Bon, who called for another round and asked if America had beer gardens. They have bars and supermarkets where you can always get a beer, I said. But are there beautiful women who sing songs like these? he asked. I refilled his glass and said, They have beautiful women but they do not sing songs like these.

Then the guitarist began strumming the chords of another song. They do sing songs like this, Man said. It was Yesterday by the Beatles. As the three of us joined in singing, my eyes grew moist. What was it like to live in a time when one’s fate was not war, when one was not led by the craven and the corrupt, when one’s country was not a basket case kept alive only through the intravenous drip of American aid? I knew none of these young soldiers around me except for my blood brothers and yet I confess that I felt for them all, lost in their sense that within days they would be dead, or wounded, or imprisoned, or humiliated, or abandoned, or forgotten. They were my enemies, and yet they were also brothers-in-arms. Their beloved city was about to fall, but mine was soon to be liberated. It was the end of their world, but only a shifting of worlds for me. So it was that for two minutes we sang with all our hearts, feeling only for the past and turning our gaze from the future, swimmers doing the backstroke toward a waterfall.

***

The rain finally ceased by the time we left. We were smoking a final cigarette at the mouth of the dank, dripping alley that was the beer garden’s exit when a trio of hydrocephalic marines stumbled out of the vaginal darkness. Beautiful Saigon! they sang. Oh, Saigon! Oh, Saigon! Although it was only six, they were inebriated, fatigues stained with beer. Each had an M16 hanging from a shoulder strap, and each showed off a spare pair of testicles. These, on closer inspection, turned out to be two grenades clamped to either side of their belt buckles. Although their uniforms, weapons, and helmets were all of American manufacture, as were ours, it was impossible to mistake them for Americans, the dented helmets being the giveaway, steel pots sized for American heads that were too big for any of us. The first marine’s head swung this way and that before he bumped into me and cursed, the brim of his helmet falling all the way to his nose. When he pushed up the brim, I saw bleary eyes trying to focus. Hello! he said, breath reeking, his southern accent so thick I had some trouble understanding him. What’s this? A policeman? What’re you doing with the real soldiers?

Man flicked ashes at him. This policeman’s a captain. Salute your superior, Lieutenant.

The second marine, also a lieutenant, said, If you say so, Major, to which the third marine, a lieutenant as well, said, The hell with majors and colonels and generals. The president’s run off. The generals—poof! Like smoke. Gone. Saving their own asses like they always do. Guess what? That leaves us to cover the retreat. Like we always do. What retreat? the second marine said. There’s nowhere to go. The third agreed: We’re dead. As good as dead, the first said. Our job is to be dead.

I tossed away my cigarette. You’re not dead yet. You should get back to your posts.

The first marine focused once more on my face, taking a step closer until his nose nearly touched mine. What are you?

You are out of line, Lieutenant! Bon shouted.

I’ll tell you what you are. The marine poked his finger in my chest.

Don’t say it, I said.

A bastard! he cried. The two other marines laughed and chimed in. A bastard!

I drew my revolver and placed the muzzle between the marine’s eyes. Behind him, his friends fingered their rifles nervously but did no more. They were impaired, but not enough to think they could be faster on the draw than my more sober friends.

You’re drunk, aren’t you, Lieutenant? Despite myself, my voice trembled.

Yes, the marine said. Sir.

Then I won’t shoot you.

It was then, to my great relief, that we heard the first of the bombs.

Everybody’s head swiveled in the direction of the explosion, which was followed by another and another, to the northwest. It’s the airport, Bon said. Five-hundred-pound bombs. He would turn out to be correct in both cases. From our vantage point, we could see nothing except, after a few moments, billowing plumes of black smoke. Then it seemed as if every gun in the city went off from downtown to the airport, light weaponry going clack-clack-clack and heavy weaponry going chug-chug-chug, flurries of orange tracers swirling into the sky. The racket drew all the residents of the pitiful street to their windows and into the doorways, and I holstered my revolver. Likewise sobered by the presence of witnesses, the marine lieutenants clambered into their jeep without another word and drove off, weaving through the handful of motorbikes on the street until they reached the intersection. Then the jeep braked to a halt and the marines stumbled out with M16s in hand, even as the explosions continued and civilians thronged the sidewalks. My pulse quickened when the marines glared at us from under the jaundiced light of a streetlamp, but all they did was aim skyward, howling and screaming as they fired their weapons until the magazines were empty. My heart was beating fast and the sweat was trickling down my back, but I smiled for the sake of my friends and lit another cigarette.

Idiots! Bon shouted as the civilians crouched in doorways. The marines called us a few choice names before they got back into the jeep, turned the corner, and vanished. Bon and I said good-bye to Man, and after he left in his own jeep I tossed Bon the keys. The bombing and the gunfire had ceased, and as he drove the Citroën to his apartment he swore bloody murder at the Marine Corps the entire way. I kept my silence. One did not depend on marines for good table manners. One depended on them to have the right instincts when it came to matters of life and death. As for the name they had called me, it upset me less than my reaction to it. I should have been used to that misbegotten name by now, but somehow I was not. My mother was native, my father was foreign, and strangers and acquaintances had enjoyed reminding me of this ever since my childhood, spitting on me and calling me bastard, although sometimes, for variety, they called me bastard before they spit on me.

***

Excerpted from THE SYMPATHIZER © 2015 by Viet Thanh Nguyen; published by Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.


Viet Nguyen-smallcolor

Artist’s Statement: I’m both a scholar and a fiction writer. I believe that literature can be a form of critique, and the novel is infused with the spirit of criticism (delivered in hopefully persuasive and entertaining ways). With this novel, I wanted to intervene in how the war—and Vietnam, and America—are remembered. I wanted to be sympathetic to all sides, but critical of all sides, too.

Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam and raised in America. His stories have appeared in Best New American Voices, TriQuarterly, Narrative, and the Chicago Tribune, and he is the author of the academic books Race and Resistance, and Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. He teaches English and American Studies at the University of Southern California and lives in Los Angeles.

This post is part of diaCRITICS’ Vietnamese American Literary Series, OUT OF THE MARGINS, launched in 2015-16. The series curates literary work from poets, writers and artists of Vietnamese-American and Vietnamese diasporic experience. Our mission is to create an inclusive, diverse, provocative, ongoing space for voices and visions from this community, thus bringing them out of the margins. Dao Strom is the series editor and curator.

 


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