Spy vs. History

From the set of Apocalypse Now

In Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer, the battle over the Vietnam War rages on

“Indochina” is a poor toponym, violent in its imprecision, but Indochina is the specialized name for a particular Franco-American nightmare. Open up the dome of any United States general and you’d find a fearful diorama permanently installed there, displaying black pajamas and napalm alongside a program called Phoenix and a town named My Lai. In a corner of the American mind, the last helicopter is always leaving Saigon.

Those anxieties now dominate the battlefield in their own right, which is why Viet Thanh Nguyen’s new novel The Sympathizer reads like an act of irregular warfare. An insurgency in prose, this strange, lovely spy story opens a new front in what revisionist historian Max Boot calls “The War over the Vietnam War.” It’s a conflict that common sense and ethical memory seem to be losing, the dead marshaled for counterinsurgent stories with imperial disregard, with a cry like the one Nguyen’s narrator imagines hearing on the set of a fictionalized Apocalypse Now: “Dead Vietnamese, take your places!” But like the film’s director, Nguyen rigs the graveyard to blow. He tries to cut the enemy’s image supply lines with a novel like a flanking maneuver. Perhaps above all else, The Sympathizer aims to sabotage the factory where Quiet Americans are made.

“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook,” the book’s hero offers by way of introduction. He’s a Viet Minh mole, embedded first with South Vietnam’s secret police and then with the refugee community in the United States – “a beauty spot on the nose of power itself,” his handler assures him. In fact, his mission is mostly inconsequential; he reports on a General stewing in exile, as well as a Hollywood production and a doomed effort at counterrevolution. Nameless, a bastard, biracial to boot, Nguyen’s leading man spies with universal empathy. “I am simply able to see any issue from both sides,” he says. Empathy starts to explain why he eventually finds himself confessing this story in a reeducation camp. Empathy makes him an ideal site for unconventional warfare, a heart and a mind worth winning. To paraphrase our COIN mandarins, the narrator is the battlefield.

Three forces are fighting for the spy, who was educated in California and did his senior thesis on “Myth and Symbol in the Literature of Graham Greene.” One is American nationalism, the second anti-Americanism, and the last Vietnamese nationalism. The divides are litigated in language and trope; the camp commandant complains, “Not quoting Uncle Ho or revolutionary poetry is one thing, but not even a folk saying or a proverb?” Instead the spy invokes Camus and Milton, Goebbels and Fu Manchu. He is—he declares himself—an Occidentalist. He confesses to fetishizing Audrey Hepburn.

Each citation is revenge, asymmetric, on the Westerners who don’t see a Westerner in him. Many suffer from racial-sensory overload, “their retinas burned with the images of all the castrati dreamed up by Hollywood to steal the place of real Asian men.” Or else they replace him with a vision of delusional harmony: “Reconcile your divided allegiances and you will be the ideal translator between two sides, a goodwill ambassador to bring opposing nations to peace!” And yet in communist hands, he’s tortured so as to be “transformed from an American into a Vietnamese once more.” For some folks, there’s just no winning. Both nations mean to manhandle him into false representation.

How does an individual or a novel resist those pressures? Striking back against dominant imaginations of Vietnam, there’s no real hope of parity; The Sympathizer is up against a much greater volume of weaponized culture. The spy models that difficulty while working as a technical consultant to a faux Francis Ford Coppola. In optimistic moments, he imagines himself “an infiltrator into a work of propaganda.” He secures speaking roles for Vietnamese characters, tells himself he’s combatting erasure, but in the final account he feels co-opted. The movie internalizes his dissent and comes out even stronger. There’s something very American about that experience: Our national identity makes room for dissident jingoism, for anti-imperial imperialism, strong and flexible like graphene.

The novel, swimming against the mainstream of Western spy fiction, works in a similar context. A very good book, it can’t help but lift up the whole body of espionage literature. “Don’t you see that the Americans need the anti-American?” Nguyen’s camp commandant lectures toward the end. So the book, to some extent despite itself, is one of the finest American spy novels – an unavoidably national credit. That’s in stark contrast with its protagonist, who ends his story stateless. “A revolutionary in search of a revolution,” he calls himself, still hopeful. The Sympathizer smuggles that perspective into a strategic position: upstream of politics, downstream from Graham Greene. The book’s broader influence will come down to how long its insurgent sensibility survives behind enemy lines, whether its universal subversive can stick in the culture’s craw.

At the very least, the spy’s voice is exceptionally distinctive. Mannered narration links scenes of cartoonish diversity, from peak grief and torture to the sexual violation of a squid. In a typical understatement, he says of pseudo-Coppola: “Perhaps I went too far when I invited him to perform fellatio on me, but he also went too far in threatening to kill me.” With enthusiasm, he intimates that Vietnamese chefs can “cook canids seven different virility-enhancing ways, from extracting the marrow to grilling and boiling, as well as sausage-making, stewing, and a few varieties of frying and steaming – yum!” The outstanding political question is whether that voice is striking enough to bend and frustrate efforts to cite its inter-texts – chief among them The Quiet American.

The Sympathizer is an enciphering of Greene’s novel. Nguyen’s spy communicates with his handler using a book code; the book, in a snide joke, is Asian Communism and the Oriental Method of Destruction by one Richard Hedd (it’ll come to you). And that author is a play on York Harding, the pseudo-intellectual who in Greene’s story provides such inspiration to a know-nothing CIA operative. Everywhere, Nguyen steals and abuses Greene’s tropes like this. He riffs on Catholicism. He riffs on innocence. He riffs directly on The Quiet American, having his own bright and brutal CIA man label Greene’s “a latent homosexual.” In the wake of this novel, it’s impossible for a reader to summon up Graham Greene without Nguyen’s annotations tagging along. Greene becomes a spoiled referent; it becomes that much more difficult to use his vision to imagine Vietnam.

The novel takes the same approach to Apocalypse Now, toying with the film at length, though neither effort can succeed in full. The spy’s takeaway is despairing: “They owned the means of production, and therefore the means of representation, and the best that we could ever hope for was to get a word in edgewise before our anonymous deaths.” There are no Geneva Conventions on misrepresentation, there’s no dock at the Hague set aside for cinematographers, and at the end of the day there’s no strict justice in art. At best, the word in edgewise can be a wrench in the works. The book can make misrepresentation a bit more challenging (criticism, Foucault said, is “a matter of making facile gestures difficult”). If the spy novel is usually an Orientalizing lens, The Sympathizer dirties it.

So Nguyen’s novel makes it more difficult to dwell in glib representations of Vietnam. What’s more, its sabotage efforts have another, nearly co-equal target: the representation of torture, characteristic weapon of the counterinsurgent and counterterrorist.

“One does not compromise,” France’s Pierre Mendès-France once declared, “when it comes to defending the internal peace of the nation, the unity and the integrity of the Republic.” But spy fiction is always a fantasy of moral compromise. There are situations, Eric Ambler imagined in a genre classic, “out of which there is no possible way that is not humiliating or distressing and from which there is no truth, however bitter, to be extracted.” This is a fetish – an erotic attraction to moral indignity. Jacques Barzun wrote in a fierce 1965 indictment of John Le Carré that spy novels are a literature of “permissible depravity,” a cousin of pornography. To drill down on the depravity at issue, there’s a reason “torture porn” is an immediately intelligible turn of phrase.

It’s a commonplace of spy fiction that the hero will torture or be tortured, often both, and that the reader is expected on some level to enjoy this. Sometimes the pleasure takes root in a fantasy of justification. The “ticking time bomb” scenario, in which a terrorist must be put to the question before a plot takes innocent lives, is one of these. Sometimes the goal is to draw a moral equivalence between two sides: a sense that all is permitted. If a hero suffers extraordinary violence, we usually assume, he’s then licensed to author extraordinary violence. These narrative structures reinforce the assumptions of flesh-and-blood counterinsurgency, which prefers to imagine itself either effective or fair. Taking those plot systems apart, Nguyen takes aim at our apologies for authorized cruelty.

The book’s last act is dedicated in full to interrogation, though the whole novel is shaped by indefinite detention and its whole body is shot through with official brutalities. The narrator learned to torture from the CIA; as it turns out, so did his communist torturers. The Americans believe they’ve rationalized interrogation practices established by the French, while the French think they learned from the Vietnamese. The invention of torture always poses something of a bootstrap paradox. Someone else is inevitably to blame for coming up with it—the torturer never forgives the tortured—and no one need feel too guilty. Or as Nguyen’s CIA man tells his pupils, showing them images of abuse that cross time and cultures: “Who says we don’t share a common humanity?”

The closing torture sequence is shockingly original and a little bit unhinged (it leads the narrator into a mind-body crisis). But it also stresses the ordinary, pointless qualities of the coercion involved, doing away with spy fiction’s traditional emphasis on exceptional circumstances. In fact, all the interrogator wants the narrator to confess is that he’s done “nothing.” No one has ever needed a reason to brutalize another human being, Nguyen intimates, whether moral, political, or practical; the impulse is fundamental. Torture deconstructs the spy, and the spy’s experience deconstructs torture clichés.

In a typically fine spy novel, the hero would end this experience a patriot, or else a defector, or else a corpse. To that roster The Sympathizer adds a new possibility: the spy can become, disputing the label, a “boatperson.” It’s an especially disruptive prospect for the state-sanctifying espionage genre. Where normally a spy can justify his conduct by reference to the nation, this spy’s skin and style set him adrift: hostis humani generis, enemy in a sense of all mankind. His person is defiantly singular, defiantly subversive. “How dare a man with two minds,” he asks himself after his psychic split, “think he could represent himself much less anyone else, including his own recalcitrant people?”

Perhaps he can’t. But if this man can’t dare, if in some sense even this novel can’t dare, than at least its insurgent conscience makes the wrong kind of daring more difficult.