What I’m Reading Now

One of the joys of the veterans’ writing group is the exchange of recommendations for books, films, news articles, sometimes music. We’re all desolated that we won’t be meeting till March, but in the meantime I’m sending out resources and getting back recommendations.

The suggestion for the novel The Sympathizer by Viet Thahn Nguyen came from a Vietnam veteran who said it offered an accurate image of Saigon, the last days before the Communists took over, and the aftermath.

I can’t attest to the accuracy but can certainly recommend it as a crucial addition to understanding the impact of our war on a part of world that had been torn apart for years before the Americans sent in advisors and escalated the confrontation beyond repair. The gruesomeness has forced me to turn to other reading once or twice, but the writing makes it too good to stop.

In the early pages, Nguyen alternates scenes of decadent excess under American controlled South Vietnam with the austerity of the protagonist’s (so far unnamed) imprisonment under the Commandant. The prisoner tells us that he was a double agent – a mole working for the Americans whom he despises.

At about a quarter of the way in, I’m not sure what to believe. We’re deep in Smiley world here, but with more insightful cultural observation, a promising arc, and a forceful voice. One blurb writer said no one had captured such force since Humbert Humbert.

Nguyen has the better of Nabokov, I think, because he’s less wrapped up in his own experience and more willing to write in magnificent and colorful detail of the good (friends who protect each other), the bad (the venal bribe givers and takers), and the ugly (pretty much everyone else).

The early chapters set in the oppressive tropical and airless spaces of Vietnam make good reading on nights when the outside temps are circling 15, and it’s promising to snow/sleet/rain again.

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