A Drop in the River

IMG_0843The truly timeless tales are those that seem to be telling a localized story but are in fact about something greater, larger, universal. All stories are like a drop in the river of our humanity, but a really good story, to paraphrase Rumi, is not a drop in the river but is the whole river in a drop.

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 horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simple able to see any issue from both sides.

Thus begins The Sympathizer by Viet Thang Nguyen. Generally, when I write a blog post, I am pretty skimpy on plot details. My logic is: if one hasn’t read the book, why spoil it? and if one has, why repeat or rephrase what was carefully rendered by the author’s own purposeful style and pace? What I like to record for the benefit of my memory as well as for, hopefully, any interested person’s benefit is the effect a book has on me.

Maybe it says more about me than I’d like, but I have to admit that my favorite kind of humor is gallows humor. The narrator of The Sympathizer is just the sort I like and the structure of the novel, in which the narrator is telling the story to one particular person, allows a gullible reader such as myself to feel an intimacy with him. He is amusing, has interesting tales to tell, and unique perspectives to share.

Nguyen, I am hardly the first person to report (he received a pulitzer among many other awards for this book, after all), has written a beautifully affecting novel. The novel begins at the fall of Saigon in 1975, a double agent, The Captain, tells his story in a tone that evinces both a sense of fatalism and chaotic happenstance. From his own heritage to the international conflict at play, nothing is simple, everything is its own opposite. That tension imbues, colors, and complicates everything. Nguyen’s style however, is light.

All this time I kept my gaze fixed on hers, an enormously difficult task given the gravitational pull exerted by her cleavage. While I was critical of many things when it came to so-called Western civilizations, cleavage was not one of them. The Chinese may have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in simple lasciviousness, he was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb “to cleave,” which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman’s cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity (p 232).

The story weaves its web from the outside in. The sum is not seen until the very end. There is a clarity and power of message that I did not anticipate for at least the first 2/3 of the story, and that….sneakiness is a delight even while it leads to the greater theme which is heart-wrenchingly human, all too human.

4 responses to “A Drop in the River

  1. I enjoyed it however was a bit disheartened upon discovering that the movie being referenced in the plot is in fact Apocalypse Now

    • Have you ever watched the documentary Heart of Darkness? It’s about the making of Apocalypse Now and makes The Sympathizer’s allusion to it seem quaint (as far as pointing to the chaotic production style) It’s a very good film. Narrated by Eleanor Coppola (wife of Francis) using footage she took. She’s also one of the directors of the film. It’s very good, but does not, to my recollection, touch upon the racism that The Sympathizer points to. But I guess it wouldn’t…that would take a kind of self-reflection that is difficult to face, especially at the time. But that’s why The Sympathizer’s point of view is so important.

      • Gilbert Grape

        It would imply that Coppola became Colonel Kurtz with Brando as an alter ego. One needs to look at the Joseph Conrad book in perspective, because it is an indictment of western megalomania.

  2. Yes, absolutely. Heart of Darkness is an indictment of colonialism and western megalomania, but it also flattens a whole continent and its inhabitants. That is not Conrad’s concern in the book, he is scaling up in a thematic sense, and the indictment is important, but its also worth noting, I think, the irony of writing a book about the effect of western megalomania on the westerner. One needs to look at Things Fall Apart for another perspective yet….never mind Ngyuyen’s hero just seeing “any issue from both sides” — we need many sides, all the sides! And where but novels can we find them so easily? I humbly praise with gratitude the authors of the world!

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