"Nothing is more valuable than freedom and independence."
I’ve always been fascinated by other cultures around the world; really wanting to dive into their depths and understand what makes them different, yet similar to my own. One of the best ways to understand another culture (in my opinion) is to read fiction from different countries. In a way, I feel that fiction often manages to capture the zeitgeist of a certain time more so than factual accounts. Often, fiction is more daring and honest because it has the creative license to be so.
With this in mind, I chose our November book, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, winner of this year’s Pulitzer prize and a novel about the Vietnamese War (otherwise known as the American war). There have been countless books written about this period of history and I read a great many of them during my school and university days. I was interested in re-visiting the Vietnamese war, this time through a fictional rather than historic account, and perhaps most importantly via a Vietnamese voice.
Of course, this novel focuses on some factual elements of the Vietnamese war, but many of the characters are fictional. We were all eager to begin this novel, and see what Viet Thanh Nguyen could add to this period of history. One member of our group is originally from Vietnam, so we hoped she would be able to vouch for cultural accuracy.
The novel focuses around the key narrator “The Sympathizer” or ‘'The Captain”, a Communist spy living in the US, after having to forcibly leave Vietnam because he is (falsely) considered to be a supporter of the USA and capitalism. The Captain is half -French and half-Vietnamese and his father (a catholic priest) disowned him and his mother whilst he was a child. The novel explores the idea of mixed race and how the protagonist often feels like he doesn’t fully fit into either culture. A certain Orientalist academic he meets in the US claims that he is the best kind of person to comment on Vietnamese culture as he is at once an outsider and an insider. I personally think the idea of not belonging to a specific culture was one of the stronger yet more subtle elements of the story line.
As the novel unravels, brotherhood and ideas of friendship and loyalty become more important than they initially appeared to The Captain. Many parts of the story are written in a slightly humorous tone, which is interesting given the subject matter. There are often astute and exceptionally profound passages on human nature offered up by The Captain as he narrates the story.
In many ways, this novel is not so much about the Vietnamese war, or a spy novel, but a story about belonging and finding one's true place in the world. The novel seems to be written in three parts; the beginning is set in Vietnam after the 1975 fall of Saigon, as the Captain and his contemporaries are fleeing to the US. The middle section is a vivid account of the Captain’s life in California whilst a part of him yearns to return to Vietnam and fight for the communist cause. The final part of the novel sees him return to Vietnam and is shocking and haunting in its descriptions of the life that awaits the Captain in Vietnam. I won’t give away the last portion of the novel, but I can say that the tone and subject matter shift rather dramatically and to great effect.
The novel was well-received by all the City Lick girls, we all felt that this important novel gave us time to reflect on what politics, identity and place mean to each of us and our wider community, especially in these turbulent times. The same questions posed by the Captain in the novel about existence and the meaning of life are relevant to anyone reading this novel. In the end, we all ask the question; what are we really living, fighting and dying for?
We discussed the novel at length and could have talked much longer into the night. Katy and Liz especially liked the style of writing and the dry sense of humour that is injected throughout the novel. We agreed that Viet Thanh Nguyen is a new, powerful voice in literature and look forward to seeing what else he produces. We highly recommend reading this novel to anyone with an interest in the Cold War, history and reflections on both American and Vietnamese society at the time. Neither is presented as better than the other in this novel, they are both presented as vibrant and flawed countries, with perhaps more in common than they would both like to admit.
For food, the choice was easy! We all love Vietnamese food and couldn’t wait to meet to discuss the book over steaming bowls of Pho. Some of the best Vietnamese restaurants in London are on Kingsland Road (a little too far east for our Monday night meeting) so instead we opted for Cay Tre in Soho, we’d all been before and the food is pretty tasty (although not as authentically Vietnamese as we might have liked) . The atmosphere was even buzzier than we remembered, especially for a Monday night!
We decided to go for some deep-fried squid as a starter in honour of one rather memorable scene from the novel. We then moved on to some huge bowls of pho and some curried fish dishes. The food and service whilst good, was not amazing and the restaurant itself is definitely not as photogenic as some we’ve reviewed before. It’s a great lunch choice if you find yourself in Soho during the week, and a good place for a loud, group dinner. However, if you’re looking for a quiet place to have a good catch up, we’d suggest looking elsewhere.
All in all, we greatly enjoyed reading The Sympathizer and reflecting on the questions that this novel brought to the table.
Chosen and written by Becka.