THE SYMPATHIZER, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Grove Press, 371 pp. $26.
Forty years ago this month, the United States evacuated its personnel from Saigon in an operation code-named Frequent Wind. Whether you were alive then or not, the images of those panicked Vietnamese crushing the U.S. Embassy are tattooed on our collective consciousness.
In the opening pages of Viet Thanh Nguyen's extraordinary first novel, "The Sympathizer," that terror feels so real that you'll mistake your beating heart for helicopter blades thumping the air. Nguyen brings us right inside the barbed-wire-encircled home of a South Vietnamese general just waking from his faith in American resilience. Thrashing all around him, officers and cronies are bargaining for survival: Who will get out? Who will be left to the hands of their inexorable enemy?
The general does not know it, but the captain he has put in charge of those decisions is, in fact, a Viet Cong spy. "Every stroke of my pen through a name felt like a death sentence," says this unnamed narrator, who has burrowed deep into the general's confidence. "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."
Over the next 350 pages, that conflicted whisper draws us through what is surely a new classic of war fiction. Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam and raised in the United States, has wrapped a cerebral thriller around a desperate expat story that confronts the existential dilemmas of our age. The narration comes to us as a confession written and rewritten many times in an isolation cell. The imprisoned captain recalls fleeing with the South Vietnamese general and insinuating himself into the refugee community that settles around Los Angeles. There, he continues spying on the restless warriors as they plot a quixotic plan to liberate their homeland from the communists.
Given that explosive opening scene, strafed with bullets and punctuated by bombs, the rest of the novel should feel comparatively tepid, but it never does because the captain's serpentine voice is so hypnotic and the events he relates are so captivating. Once in California and relieved from the exigencies of war, he turns his incisive wit on American culture and its cheery racism. The novel's most complex comedy and cultural criticism stem from the captain's work as a consultant for a Hollywood movie called "The Hamlet." Hired as "the technical consultant in charge of authenticity," our genial narrator quickly finds himself enslaved in the Philippines on a project you'll recognize ("Apocalypse Now"). As funny as it is tragic, this section alone could carry the whole novel. (The Thespian -- clearly Marlon Brando -- makes a hilarious, reeking cameo before his much refilmed death scene in which he groans, "The whore! The whore!")
In Nguyen's version, the Francis Ford Coppola character is not just a monumental ass, he's also a latent racist determined to make a film that pretends to mourn America's struggle, but in fact reinscribes its grandiose purity. "The Movie was just a sequel to our war and a prequel to the next one that America was destined to wage," the captain laments. With its cinematic explosions, abuses and killings, this deconstructive portrayal of the Academy Award-winning classic provides a bracing dramatization of the way American hegemony and romanticism are encoded in our most popular export.
But then Nguyen turns the screw another rotation, and the grotesque scenes of abuse in the Auteur's movie lead into an extended examination of torture in real life. Yes, all the ghastly tools of the trade are here, but what's particularly striking is the way Nguyen concentrates on that species of psychological abuse that our creative lawyers contorted into legal shapes during the Iraq War. I haven't read anything since Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" that illustrates so palpably how a patient tyrant, unmoored from all humane constraint, can reduce a man's mind to liquid.
The contemporary relevance of this devastating final section can't be ignored, but "The Sympathizer" is too great a novel to feel bound to our current soul-searching about the morality of torture. And it's even more than a thoughtful reflection about our misguided errand in Southeast Asia. Transcending these historical moments, Nguyen plumbs the loneliness of human life, the costs of fraternity and the tragic limits of our sympathy.