There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to [email protected]
Man In The Middle
Whatever little the world knows about the Vietnam War, it is from the point of view of the Americans. They first interfered in another country’s affairs, and unleashed horrific violence, including chemical warfare (the infamous napalm) on the Vietnamese people; then, when they got whipped, American movies portrayed the Vietnamese as savages.
Which is why Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel The Sympathizer is such an important and powerful piece of work, for which he deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year.
The unnamed protagonist of the novel is a spy, a communist mole, who by his proximity to the General, the chief of South Vietnam’s the secret police, is privy to many secrets. Nguyen is very critical of his country’s elite, who paid their way out of the country when the communists won the war. The very complex and very gripping story is in the form of a confession to another authority figure, a Commandant.
The narrator writes of the tragedy of his country with clarity—in a particularly satirical section, he is hired by a pompous Hollywood filmmaker as a consultant on film he is making on the Vietnam War (obviously a lampooning of Apocalypse Now!), in which Asians do not even have speaking parts.
The man, called Captain by his boss, is quite literally living a double life—he is a half-breed illegitimate son of a teenage Vietnamese mother and a French Catholic priest;; he was educated in the US, where is suffered the usual racosm but learnt to speak English without an accent. Still, he returned to his country to live perilously. As he writes in the book’s opening chapter, “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 a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times, when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you—that is a hazard, I must confess.”
Captain has two close friends, or blood brothers, one of whom, Bon is a CIA assassin and the other, Man, is his handler. This sets the plot for guilt, betrayal and much emotional turbulence. Captain participates in the murder of a man he refers to as the crapulent major, and is so riven by guilt that he keeps giving money to the man’s wife.
He remains a spy even in America, from where he keeps sending coded messages to Man in invisible ink. The General and his cohorts, unhappy with their squalid lives in the US, plan a counterrevolutionary invasion, and the narrator lands bang in the middle of the doomed-to-failure plan.
The tone of the novel moves from tragic (the fall of Saigon and the death of Bon’s family), to dark to absurdist. It’s written in a twisty-turny style with several digressions for commenting on cultural quirks of both the Vietnamese and the Americans. It is also very unpredictable… and unputdownable.
By Viet Thanh Nguyen
Publisher: Grove Press
Excerpt of The Sympathizer
We could not believe that the pleasant, scenic coffee town of Ban Me Thuot, my Highlands hometown, had been sacked in early March. We could not believe that our president, Thieu, whose name begged to be spit out of the mouth, had inexplicably ordered our forces defending the Highlands to retreat. We could not believe that Da Nang and Nha Trang had fallen, or that our troops had shot civilians in the back as they all fought madly to escape on barges and boats, the death toll running to the thousands. In the secret privacy of my office, I dutifully snapped pictures of these reports, which would please Man, my handler.
While they pleased me, too, as signs of the regime’s inevitable erosion, 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. She was a poor person, I was her poor child, and no one asks poor people if they want war. Nor had anyone asked these poor people if they wanted to die of thirst and exposure on the coastal sea, or if they wanted to be robbed and raped by their own soldiers. If those thousands still lived, they would not have believed how they had died, just as we could not believe that the Americans—our friends, our benefactors, our protectors—had spurned our request to send more money. And what would we have done with that money? Buy the ammunition, gas, and spare parts for the weapons, planes, and tanks the same Americans had bestowed on us for free. Having given us the needles, they now perversely no longer supplied the dope. (Nothing, the General muttered, is ever so expensive as what is offered for free.)
At the end of our discussions and meals, I lit the General’s cigarette and he stared into space, forgetting to smoke the Lucky Strike as it slowly consumed itself in his fingers. In the middle of April, when the ash stung him awake from his reverie and he uttered a word he should not have, Madame silenced the tittering children and said, If you wait much longer, we won’t be able to get out. You should ask Claude for a plane now. The General pretended not to hear Madame. She had a mind like an abacus, the spine of a drill instructor, and the body of a virgin even after five children. All of this was wrapped up in one of those exteriors that inspired our Beaux Arts–trained painters to use the most pastel of watercolors and the fuzziest of brushstrokes. She was, in short, the ideal Vietnamese woman. For this good fortune, the General was eternally grateful and terrified. Kneading the tip of his scorched finger, he looked at me and said I think it’s time to ask Claude for a plane. Only when he resumed studying his damaged finger did I glance at Madame, who merely raised an eyebrow. Good idea, sir, I said.
Claude was our most trusted American friend, our relationship so intimate he once confided in me to being one-sixteenth Negro. Ah, I had said, equally smashed on Tennessee bourbon, that explains why your hair is black, and why you tan well, and why you can dance the cha-cha like one of us. Beethoven, he said, was likewise of hexadecimal descent. Then, I said, that explains why you can carry the tune of “Happy Birthday” like no one’s business. We had known each other for more than two decades, ever since he had spotted me on a refugee barge in ’54 and recognized my talents. I was a precocious nine-year old who had already learned a decent amount of English, taught to me by a pioneering American missionary. Claude supposedly worked in refugee relief. Now his desk was in the American embassy, his assignment ostensibly to promote the development of tourism in our war-stricken country. This, as you might imagine, required every drop he could squeeze from a handkerchief soaked with the sweat of the can-do American spirit. In reality, Claude was a CIA man whose time in this country dated back to the days when the French still ruled an empire. In those days, when the CIA was the OSS, Ho Chi Minh looked to them for help in fighting the French. He even quoted America’s Founding Fathers in his declaration of our country’s independence. Uncle Ho’s enemies say he spoke out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, but Claude believed he saw both sides at once. I rang Claude from my office, down the hall from the General’s study, and informed him in English that the General had lost all hope. Claude’s Vietnamese was bad and his French worse, but his English was excellent. I point this out only because the same thing could not be said of all his countrymen.
Like KV Raman’s earlier thriller, Fraudster, his new novel Insider is also set in the corporate world. In this one, a top CEO, Shashi Kurva is accused of insider trading and has to prove his innocence. The author writes in his note, “While the story in this book is entirely a work of fiction, some of the underlying issues are not.” Trying to read between the lines makes this an even more interesting read.
According to the synopsis: “Racing between the boardroom, a stockbroking firm and a shattered family, Insider is a tale of duplicity and avarice, manipulation and murder, that takes you into the murky depths of the Indian stock market and data analytics, where profit is the only object, and money the only language.”
By RV Raman
Shobha Rao’s An Unrestored Woman And Other Stories is a collection of Partition stories, and the scale of the human tragedy that took place in 1947 (some of Manto’s best work captured the madness of the time) can only make for a moving read. The characters in the twelve stories are connected—in the title as the author explains, the word “restored” is more apt than “recovered” for the abducted women on both sides of the border, who were forcibly returned to their families, many of whom did not want them back, because they were considered impure.
The synopsis states, “An Unrestored Woman explores the fault lines in this mass displacement of humanity: a new mother is trapped on the wrong side of the border; a soldier finds the love of his life but is powerless to act on it; an ambitious servant seduces both master and mistress; a young prostitute quietly, inexorably plots revenge on the madam who holds her hostage. Caught in a world of shifting borders, Rao’s characters have reached their tipping points. In paired stories that hail from India and Pakistan to the United States, Italy, and England, we witness the ramifications of the violent uprooting of families, the price they pay over generations, and the uncanny relevance these stories have in our world today.”
An Unrestored Woman And Other Stories
By Shobha Rao