Viet Thanh Nguyen, one of our great chroniclers of displacement, appears to value the term “refugee” precisely for the punitive violence it betrays. Born in 1971, he is, by self-description, the son of Vietnamese refugees, and he has been a refugee himself; he has married a refugee, a fellow-writer named Lan Duong. In the acknowledgments of “The Refugees” (Grove), his beautiful and heartrending new story collection, he speaks of his son, Ellison: “By the time this book is published, he will be nearly the age I was when I became a refugee.”
It is hardly surprising that the refugee is obsessed with identity, both personal and ethnic. He is likely to be highly sensitive to others’ interpretations of him and of his “minority” culture. And so his peripheral status confers certain advantages, for he is in a position to see what others do not. As Nguyen has recounted, in an afterword to his début novel, “The Sympathizer” (2015), “I watched ‘Apocalypse Now’ and saw American sailors massacre a sampan full of civilians and Martin Sheen shoot a wounded woman in cold blood. I watched ‘Platoon’ and heard the audience cheering and clapping when the Americans killed Vietnamese soldiers. These scenes . . . left me shaking with rage.”
Thrilling in its virtuosity, as in its masterly exploitation of the espionage-thriller genre, “The Sympathizer” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and has come to be considered one of the greatest of Vietnam War novels. The book’s (unnamed) narrator speaks in an audaciously postmodernist voice, echoing not only Vladimir Nabokov and Ralph Ellison but the Dostoyevsky of “Notes from the Underground”:
I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of the minor talents, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess.
The speaker is indeed a spy: he was, in the Republic of Vietnam, a Communist mole on the staff of a South Vietnamese general, before being evacuated from Saigon and taking refuge in post-Vietnam War America.
His confession is fraught with irony and his history is tragicomic; unlike the refugees of “The Refugees,” he regards himself with the distance of self-loathing, for he has participated in assassinations while following orders. Obsessed with “universal and timeless” questions, he is the epitome of twentieth-century man: “What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around us apparently do, in nothing?”
The stories in “The Refugees,” too, feature protagonists who are poised between the past of a devastated homeland, Vietnam, and an affluent, adopted country, the United States. The book takes one of its epigraphs from James Fenton’s “A German Requiem”:
It is not your memories which haunt you.It is not what you have written down.It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.What you must go on forgetting all your life.
To survive, for the refugee, is to be buffeted between the grief-suffused admonition to remember the losses of the homeland and the self-protective counter-admonition to “forget,” the effort of which will be enormous and lifelong.
Ordinary existence, to the death-haunted, is populated by ghosts. These are not ideas of ghosts, or poetic metaphors. These are ghosts who leave behind damp carpets and the brine-soaked clothing in which, twenty-five years before, they drowned while escaping a war-torn homeland. They are family ghosts: a fifteen-year-old boy, for instance, who had traded his life to save a sister threatened with kidnapping and rape by pirates. “These fishermen resembled our fathers and brothers, sinewy and brown, except that they wielded machetes and machine guns,” we read in the almost unbearably moving opening story, “Black-Eyed Women.”
The story’s narrator is herself a “ghost writer,” taking on projects to which her name is never attached. As her refugee mother has warned, “In our homeland . . . there was a reporter who said the government tortured the people in prison. So the government does to him exactly what he said they did to others. . . . That’s what happens to writers who put their names on things.” Even in America, there is fear within the refugee community, fear of the young men among them “who had learned about violence from growing up in wartime.” Looking back, the ghostwriter can see that the Vietnam where she spent her childhood was a “haunted country,” but that her American adolescence is haunted, as well, with “tales of woe”: “proof of what my mother said, that we did not belong here. In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories.”
In “War Years,” set in an urban Vietnamese-refugee community in the United States, in 1983, a family’s well-being is menaced not by white Americans but by fellow-refugees, diehard anti-Communists who request a “donation” from Vietnamese merchants to fund an obvious lost cause: an uprising in Vietnam. It is typical of Nguyen’s subtlety, however, that the presumed extortion is on behalf of a sincere, if misbegotten, venture involving the sewing of uniforms for South Vietnamese soldiers by a woman, Mrs. Hoa, who has been deranged by grief over the loss of her husband and two sons in the war that had ended a decade before:
“American sizes are too large for Vietnamese men and the proportions aren’t right. Plus the men want their names sewn on, and their ranks and units.” Mrs. Hoa reached under the sewing table and lifted a cardboard box, and when we leaned over the table to peek inside, we saw plastic sandwich bags filled with chevrons and the colorful badges of Vietnamese units.
Vividly, the narrator recalls the fanatic Mrs. Hoa: “While some people are haunted by the dead, others are haunted by the living.”
In the tenderly elegiac “I’d Love You to Want Me,” a marriage deteriorates with the memory of a Vietnamese professor of physics afflicted by early-onset dementia. Susceptible to random, possibly erroneous but powerful memories out of his past, the professor, now living a comfortable American suburban life, begins to mistake his wife of many years for another woman, “Yen.” The indignant wife, who has never heard of Yen, finds herself not only mourning the deterioration of her husband’s memory but insulted by this curious sort of infidelity, as the professor gradually becomes a stranger to her:
“And who am I?” she demanded. “What’s my name?”He squinted at her. “Yen, of course.”
She recalls a visit that she and the professor made to Saigon a few years before, when they’d had difficulty finding their old house on a street that had been renamed. It’s a world in which names and identities are not fixed and are easily lost. Although the professor comes to realize that his mind is going, his memories of the mysterious Yen become obsessive. In an ironic reversal, the wife is astonished to discover that the professor is keeping a notebook about her:
Matters worsening. Today she insisted I call her by another name. Must keep closer eye on her . . . for she may not know who she is anymore.
There is a beautifully poignant line about this: “so slowly the book of her life was being closed.”
Where another writer might end his story on this bleakly graceful note, Nguyen moves into a coda in which the wife decides to surrender her identity and acquiesce to the professor’s delusion: “It’s just me. . . . It’s Yen.” Devoting herself to her impaired husband, she would read to him from a book of stories, short enough to accommodate his fractured attention span: “She would read out loud, from the beginning. She would read with measured breath, to the very end. She would read as if every letter counted, page by page and word by word.”
It’s a recurring theme in “The Refugees” that the traumatized individual must make his way slowly, word by word. Nguyen’s narrative style—restrained, spare, avoiding metaphor or the syntactical virtuosity on display in every paragraph of “The Sympathizer”—is well suited for portraying tentative states. His characters are emotional convalescents, groping their way to an understanding of their woundedness. “Writing was entering into fog, feeling my way for a route from this world to the unearthly world of words, a route easier to find on some days than on others,” the narrator observes, in “Black-Eyed Women.”
Compulsive and unflinching introspection—another symptom of “refugee” consciousness—may lead survivors to realize harsh truths about themselves, as with an eighteen-year-old refugee who, in “The Other Man,” has been taken into an affluent San Francisco household:
He tried to forget the people who had clutched at the air as they fell into the river, some knocked down in the scramble, others shot in the back by desperate soldiers clearing a way for their own escape. He tried to forget what he’d discovered, how little other lives mattered to him when his own was at stake.
Truths about others are no more comforting. At any time, the refugee is likely to be confronted—confounded—by the myopia of non-Vietnamese. In “The Transplant,” Arthur, the beneficiary of a liver from a Vietnamese donor, has “trouble distinguishing one nationality of Asian names from another,” and is “also afflicted with a related, and very common, astigmatism wherein all Asians appeared the same.” In “Fatherland,” a Vietnamese girl working in an upscale Saigon restaurant overhears tourists speaking of “delicate and tiny” Vietnamese women, whose “dresses look stitched onto them.” A Vietnamese tourist guide entertains his credulous American customers for whom “act was fact”—“we’re all the same to them . . . small, charming, and forgettable.” As the sharp-eyed narrator of “The Sympathizer” tells us, the “all-American characteristic” is not sympathy or generosity but racial paranoia: “In America, it was all or nothing when it came to race. You were either white or you weren’t.”
Which you were, of course, could be a matter of context. In “Fatherland,” a young Vietnamese-American woman, Vivien, goes to Saigon to visit the children of her father and his second wife, her half siblings. (Vivien’s mother had fled to America with her kids after the war.) Her visit is a grand occasion for the family. She gives them expensive gifts and treats them generously, taking them to the sort of restaurants that native residents can’t afford. In particular, Vivien’s half sister, seven years younger than she, is in awe of Vivien’s glamour, and has fantasized about coming to the United States to live with her, and to emulate what she believes to be Vivien’s success as a doctor in Chicago. Disillusion comes when she discovers that Vivien isn’t a doctor but, rather, an unemployed receptionist with prospects as limited as her own. After the American half sister leaves, the Vietnamese half sister burns photographs of the two together: “Vivien’s features melting before her own, their faces vanishing in flame.” It is the final image in “The Refugees,” ashes blown into the sky above Saigon.
Although only now published together in book form, the earnest, straightforward, relatively conventional stories of “The Refugees” would appear to have been written before the more stylized and experimental “The Sympathizer.” But all Nguyen’s fiction is pervaded by a shared intensity of vision, by stinging perceptions that drift like windblown ashes. By the end of “The Sympathizer,” we have doubled back to its thematic beginning, as the narrator, now a survivor of torture in a Communist reëducation camp, becomes a refugee again amid anonymous “boat people”—a name, the narrator notes, that “smacks of anthropological condescension, evoking some forgotten branch of the human family.” Nguyen leaves us with a harrowing vision of the sprawling tragedies of wartime, and of the moral duplicities of which we are capable. And yet “The Sympathizer” ends with a proclamation that would work as well for the displaced Vietnamese of “The Refugees”: “We will live! ” ♦
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