My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Some spoilers here.
The protagonist in this novel about the fall of South Vietnam is a divided person and that division makes him an ouytsider and gives him an interesting viewpoint. He is physically divided because his mother is Vietnamese while is absent father was a French Catholic priest who did not claim him. This division held him up to derision by his classmates and even his aunts who treat him terribly. He is divided because although he serves in the South Vietnamese military in charge of tracking and arresting dissidents, he is in fact a North Vietnamese spy. Through it all he sees his divided and alienated self: “I was divided, tormented body below, placid consciousness floating high above.” [Loc 5316]
The novel starts as Saigon is in the final stages of its fall to North Vietnam. Because he is well connected with a general (to whom he is an aide) he is able to escape to America where he sets up a new life in the refugee community and still reports to his superior in Vietnam. In order to protect his cover he is forced to murder suspected (incorrectly) of being North Vietnamese spies. Eventually he returns to Vietnam (through Laos) as part of a “liberation army” although he has shared the details with his superior so the foray is met with disaster. The final section of the novel has him trapped in a “re-education camp” where he is subjected to the same treatment he inflicted on others as part of his fellow communists earlier in his career.
Despite the divided-ness and being an outsider he is blood brothers with two others who unbeknownst to each other are on opposite sides.
Through it all we see the pain and damage inflicted on Vietnam from the viewpoint of the Vietnamese. Many of the refugees were brave men during the war but they lived in the “moldering … stale air of subsidized apartments as their testes shriveled day by day, consumed by the metastasizing cancer called assimilation and susceptible to the hypochondria of exile.” [Loc 1458]
One of his jobs in America was an aide to a movie about the war, directed by “the auteur”. His goal was to help give it some flavor of the lives of the Vietnamese; he inevitably failed. “I naively believed that I cold divert the Hollywood organism from its goal, the simultaneous lobotomization and pickpocketing of the world’s audiences. The ancillary benefit was strip-mining history, leaving the real history in the tunnels along with the dead, doing out tiny sparkling diamonds for audiences to gasp over.”[Loc 2090]
As an outsider he sees that “nothing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence.”[Loc 3313]
Nguyen writes some beautiful passages in the book. His description of the difference between Nancy Sinatra and a Vietnamese performer singing “Bang Bang” is beautiful. “To [Nancy Sinatra] those were bubble-gum pop lyrics. Bang bang was the soundtrack of our lives.” [Loc 3605] The performance showed that depth of feeling.
There are also some quite humorous sections, such as “she cursed me at such length and with such inventiveness I had to check both my watch and my dictionary.” [Loc 3470].
This novel is an excellent telling of the Vietnamese story from the outsider’s perspective – outsiders to the American war there – outsiders even though the protagonist was in the middle of it. We come to see that this novel is being told by one Vietnamese to another. The alienation is strengthened by the fact that we learn very few names. We know the names of the protagonists two blood brothers, but not his own name – or the name of his South Vietnamese boss, “the general” or another refugee simply known as “the crapulent major” or the director of the movie.
I’ve read the past four Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction; this was my least favorite, but certainly an excellent novel. While this is in fact a very good novel, I think the subject matter – a new view of the Vietnam War, and a view of American military actions around the world since the end of World War II – helped elevate it to the prize.