Thursday, May 12, 2016

A reason I liked The Sympathizer, or diversity is unity is diversity

A big reason I liked The Sympathizer:

Author Viet Thanh Nguyen's occasional jokes about the cultural differences between the north and the south of Vietnam, including this:
"Besides the simple yet elegant cha-cha, the twist was the favorite dance of the southern people, requiring as it did no coordination."
That makes me want to know about who is what in Vietnam. There's more to the North-South dynamic than communist vs. its opposite, us vs. them, colonial vs. indigenous, or all the rest of the usual dichotomies. Portrayals of tensions and rivalries within cultures unfamiliar to me always make those cultures seem more real and more human. It's why I like Henry Chang's Chinatown novels and Joe Nazel's Street Wars, and also why I like Isaac Babel's Odessa tales and Dashiell Hammett's story "Dead Yellow Women," which, despite a title unlikely to be allowed today, says more on its first page about Chinese social and political diversity in China and in the United States than I suspect many readers are accustomed to thinking about.

 I can well imagine that a minority group might be skittish about presenting divisions to the wider world, but to me that makes those populations seem that much more human. Reminders that no group is monolithic seem especially important in a time when religious and cultural differences are so easily exploited.

Years ago, I staggered into a restaurant in London late one morning, near-exhausted by jet lag. I was the only customer at that hour, Arabic-sounding music was playing, and the waitress was a curvy, henna-haired beauty, so I chatted her up.  The encounter happened several years after after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and as the month of Ramadan drew to a close. Both facts are relevant to what followed:
Me: "What is that music?"|
Waitress: "It's Arabic music."
Me: "I know it's Arabic music. From where?"
Waitress: "It's from my country."
Me: "Where is your country?"
Waitress: "I came from Paris, actually."
Me: "Where were you before you were there?"
Waitress: "Beirut."
Me: "Christian or Muslim?" 
Waitress: (Nervously) "Muslim."
Me: "I ask because it must be hard to serve food all day while you're fasting."
Waitress: (Relaxes and bursts into hearty laughter) "I don't fast during the day, but I sure do party at night."
That might offend some Muslims and make some white liberals squirm, and I'd have hesitated to name the woman or her restaurant in a newspaper story. But I cannot imagine a better lesson in common humanity. And no, she did not party with me that night.

(Read my posts on The Sympathizer and Portnoy's Complaint: One man's squid is another man's liver and The Sympathizer, Part II: Genre, politics, and genre politics.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Blogger seana graham said...

I was just repeating a quote from my professor Mary Holmes last night: "All is not One. All is a lot of things."

May 12, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

Oh, and I guess in the spirit of your blog post, my friend retorted "Yes, and it's equally true that "All is not a lot of things, it is One."

May 12, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"All is not one," to which a metaphysically inclined wag might reply, "Yes, they are."

I should make clear that the author was born in Vietnam in the early 1970s and came to the United States at a young age, so he investigates Vietnam as much as his readers do. I just bought his new nonfiction book Nothing Ever Dies, which bears the subtitle "Vietnam and the Memory of War." The descriptions of the book remind me of some things I've said with respect to ghosts of the past in Northern Ireland crime fiction.

May 12, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

I saw that The Sympathizer has won the Pulitizer Prize, which, while not always the best indicator of quality, is still a pretty impressive achievement for a debut novel.

May 12, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A first novel, but not the author's first book. He happens to have hit on a timely subject, and one that will appeal to readers interested in personal narratives and in recent and new American history. He's decidedly worth a look.

May 12, 2016  
Blogger Di said...

Oh yes, the north and the south are very different, even now.
You may find this interesting:
I'm from Saigon, by the way.
Also, I just bought The Sympathiser a few days ago.

May 13, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, and I hope you enjoy the book.

May 13, 2016  
Blogger Di said...

Very unlikely. But thanks.

May 14, 2016  

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