When I first arrived in the United States, just about eight years ago, I thought Gran Torino was a pretty cute movie. Though I thought of myself as familiar enough with American culture to begin my graduate studies in United States history, I was clearly clueless. For starters, I had only a very vague idea that Clint Eastwood’s politics might be conservative. Somehow I didn’t connect together dots I should have. A few conversations about Gran Torino—and some years of living in the U.S.—later, I realized the extent to which I was captive to the subtle ways in which contemporary culture can sanitize atrocities; the ways in which Hollywood has functioned as one of the many tentacles of US imperialism.
Reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Sympathizer was for me a conclusion of sorts for that unfortunate chapter in my life as a consumer of culture—in which I thought that movies like Gran Torino, or Forest Gump for that matter, were benign fun. Crackling with insights about the inner workings of colonial power, The Sympathizer is not simply a fascinating read, it’s an antidote for so much of the garbage I have consumed over the years, especially as it regards that mesmerizing—and abhorrent—idea of the “orient.” And indeed, one of the most insightful sequences in the book revolve around a Hollywood production that does typical violence to colonized peoples, both as part of the production, and even more poignantly, in the process of its consumption and internalization by the colonized peoples themselves.
The result for me was a therapeutic project of locating in my consciousness some more of the nooks and crannies in which Western and colonial hegemony has stashed some of its most nuanced, yet insidious ideas. It is not often enough, for me at least, that reading functions as an opportunity for introspection and self cleansing; something akin to the process that Foucault called “care for the self.” I don’t want to give anything away, but especially the very last portion of the book contributed to an erie—at times almost masochistic, yet fulfilling process of self-examination.
As its title suggests, alongside scathing critique, there is also much sympathy to go around. Bi-racial, and a spy for North Vietnam during the Vietnamese War and after, Nguyen’s protagonist, “the sympathizer,” is well positioned to observe and dissect the cultures he has come across. Though his familiarity with his native country, Vietnam, is less surprising, his reflections on it, combining both affection and scathing despair born of proximity, are often gut wrenching. American readers, however, will find his insights into American culture particularly subtle and eye opening. Since the protagonist also happens to be one of the chief experts on American culture for the South Vietnamese regime, Nguyen weaves penetrating insights about the Americana into the plot line, as part of the protagonist’s efforts to ensure that his cover as an agent for the North isn’t blown.
As a self-identified Leftist, I especially appreciated Nguyen’s combination of sympathy toward and critique of Marxism. Here was an unrelenting scrutiny of Leftist ideas, including the doctrines of Marx and Ho Chi Minh, even as the book never loses its broader critical framework towards colonialism and capitalism as far more dangerous and sinister in the broad scheme of things. Never for a moment do you get that liberal, subtly nihilist inflection that so many Westerners—and far too many historians—are prone to: hey, both colonialism/capitalims and communism are flawed, nothing is perfect.
As an historian, The Sympathizer was a compelling example of how to approach the task of writing history, balancing sympathy for the sake of understanding, with an even-keeled sense of broad historical perspective. It is a thoughtful meditation—with a sense of political urgency that refuses to rely on comfortable formulas and that consistently subjects itself to candid introspection. Indeed, one of the great strengths of The Sympathizer is that there is a real sense that Nguyen approaches his craft as a combination of intellectual work and praxis. For historians it is a reminder that we too can do the same—without compromising due diligence in the archive. In fact it is the ultimate kind of intellectual honesty to lay everything out on the table, including, after much scrutiny, realizing how one’s own political agenda has shaped one’s scholarship.
Recently the S-USIH blog has hosted a series of conversations about the role of history and the ways we should go about practicing it. I have voiced before my support for activism in history, and with The Sympathizer in mind, I want to do so once more.