Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015) The Sympathizer

The Washington Post called Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel ‘a classic of war fiction’. The New York Times a ‘tour de force’. Yes and Yes.

The narrator has written a confession. Looked out at the shore of himself. And decided there was nothing to see. What fuelled him wasn’t nihilism, but idealism. But that too was a lie. Something he was adept at. Being the bastard son of a priest. At fourteen, his Vietnamese peasant mother became the French father’s housekeeper and mistress. His father was also his teacher at the school he attends. Here he becomes blood brothers with two other boys, Bon and Man. The Three Musketeers that take on the world.

The Symapthizer tells the reader he is not to be trusted. The first line:

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.

Man is also two-faced. Like the narrator and Bon, he is a soldier in the South Vietnamese Army fighting against Ho Chi Minh and the Communists in the North. But he is also a commissar in the People’s Republic and an anti-revolutionary revolutionary. Man is the narrator’s interrogator and torturer, but also father confessor and his handler that he passes information to. He sets out to save him. Bon, in contrast, is a simple killer who does not know of his fellow Musketeer’s identities. He does as he’s told by the General (and people like him) and asks no questions about choosing the right or wrong side of history.

April 1975. American forces are leaving Saigon. It is easy to compare, for example, July 2021. American (and British) forces leaving Kabul.

‘The month in question was April, the cruellest month.’

The narrator, is no T.S.Eliot, but a Captain the South Vietnamese Army. Saigon is The Waste Land. The captain’s superior officer, The General, whose villa he stays in, instructs him to prepare a list of people that are going back to America with the retreating troops. He has been educated in an American College and lived in both worlds. They could not take everybody, but only those that mattered and those that could pay a sufficiently high bribe to get into the compound and board a flight.

‘We could not believe that the pleasant, scenic coffee towns of Ban Me Thout, my Highlands hometown, had been sacked in early March. We could not believe that president Thieu, whose name begged to be spat 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 fought madly to escape on the barges and boats, the death toll running to thousands.’      

They could not believe it, but they did believe it. Their American allies dropped more bombs on Vietnam than all the bombs dropped in the second world war (excluding nuclear weapons) but received the refugees like flotsam, inexplicably washed up on their shore. The Captain went to live in Los Angeles with his commanding officer, the general. He had no army to lead, but acted like a man in charge, plotting to return to his lost homeland.

Bon and the Captain room together. They fall into line with their fellow exiles. It’s a life of sorts. Bon, for example, qualifies for welfare payments with money paid in cash for a job as a janitor in the black economy. Their low status makes the general bristle. Women coped better as refugees. The general’s wife, for example, opens a Vietnamese restaurant. Home cooking her speciality, even though she never cooked at home.  The Captain even begins an affair with the general’s daughter.  

Their world had turned upside down and the general wants to turn it back. His plans to invade Men who believe the yellow man is inferior, but communism is unforgiveable in any language, backed his plans to re-invade Vietnam.

The Captain reports these developments back to his handler in Paris. Bon has seen enough of America and Americans and their so-called freedom to know it is not for him. He opts of join the revolutionary force that aims to overthrow the revolutionary force, but really, it’s about returning home. The Captain goes with him, even though he’s warned by his handler, Man, not to. To stay in America, where his expertise would be of greater use. But he disobeys his order and goes with Bon to save Bon.

The confession of a confession is an examined life. The Captain has to explain to his superiors why he did what he did. What his faults were. He hand writes 352 pages and rewrites them again and again (for you, the reader). But it’s not enough. Something is missing. He has to find that part of himself and show his sorrow in a way that is appropriate without know why.

He ponders the problem of Spartacus. What do revolutionaries do when they win their revolution? Do they, for example, like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, learn to walk on two legs? And life for those that follow becomes worse rather than better in the planned utopia? His solution is to have no solution, but simply mark the fault line between ideas and idealism. Here be dragons. In losing his tortured mind, becoming two minded, he finds there are no answers. We are closer to nihilism at the end of the book than at the beginning, when idealism was not interrogated, but also closer to hope there may be an answer.    

Viet Thanh Nguyen, Yes and Yes. Read on.  

Panorama, Undercover: Britain’s Biggest GP chains, BBC 1, BBC iPlayer, undercover reporter Jacqui Wakefield

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m0017x2b/panorama-undercover-britains-biggest-gp-chain

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/jun/13/britains-biggest-chain-of-gp-surgeries-accused-of-profiteering

My partner recently had to go into hospital. The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow, Accident and Emergency. It was recently slated for having up to a thirteen-hour waiting time. We know there is little point phoning for a GP appointment on the Tuesday, after a Bank Holiday. The phone will ring off the hook. My tactic to avoid this is go to the surgery window and wait to catch the receptionist’s gaze. We’re an ageing population with more money needed to be channelled into health care.

What we get instead is Thatcherite ideology of the market knows best. The market does know best. It knows best how to take money from poor people and give it to the rich. In this case Operose Health, which is a subsidiary of private healthcare firm Centene. In the United States their looting of welfare funds led to them being sued by a number of State bodies for fraud. They paid the fine, but, of course, didn’t admit guilt.

What we have here is a different kind of fraud. A rentier class, who are paid a fixed amount for providing a service where there is no risk to the rich. We also did it with trains. Subsidised other nation’s rain networks and it gave them a guaranteed income.  

70 GP surgeries and 600 000 patients. Jacqui Wakefield logged 300 patients waiting to get through to her. And she couldn’t offer any GP appointments for any of them. One ruse was to offer appointments with a cheaper option. Put them in a white coat. Give them a fancy title. Work them with appointment after appointment so they do the equivalent work of two GPs. That’s called efficiency savings. In other words, profit for destroying the worker’s health and the health of the people he or she is trying, but failing to help.

  A study of the equivalent of Norwegian GP’s, for example, found that the more highly qualified those practicing medicine the better outcome for the patient. Not only were they able to pick up early signs of disease and treat it earlier saving more costly treatments with knock-on effects at later stages. A virtuous circle.   

A vicious circle looks something like this model. Underqualified staff.  Clinical correspondence – medical reports, test results and hospital letters – that had not been read for up to six months.

In the Thatcherite model of health care, patients would be able to shop around for better treatment, where they weren’t treated to the indignity of having to spend days on the phone. Similarly, GP practices would compete against each other to bring in the brightest and best and innovate, while making a profit. In the same way we did with our prisons, or the probation service, before that was scrapped as being unworkable.

Scotland has largely rejected this carpetbagger model of modern finance. But the Queen Elizabeth Hospital was extended with many of the same principles. Give money to rich people for building something you could do cheaper and better with forward planning. We can clap NHS workers, while not giving them a pay rise and look for savings elsewhere.  We know how this looks. It looks very much like the one rule for the rich and one rule for the poor of Centene and their ilk. Efficiency savings are only efficient if they end up in a tax haven. We all know how that feels. Because we’re all in it together. In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, ‘some animals are more equal than others’.  Some patients are more valued than others.

Yes! Yes! UCS! Townsend Productions written by Neil Gore.

Oscar Wilde:  ‘Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has ever read history, is a man’s original value.’

A writer’s job is to remember. The better the writer, the better we remember. I’d a day out at The Golden Friendship Club on Saturday. Jim McLaren performed two miracles—and perhaps there’ll be a play about that one day—buying the old Masonic Club and finding the money to renovate it. If he wants to hang a picture of his mum, Agnes, and Auntie Molly Kelly in one of two the main halls, well, that’s really up to him. In the old days, you had to stand up for old Queen Lizzie. He’s standing up for his mum, and she’s more to my liking. He needs a third miracle to find the funding to keep the place going. The Golden Friendship is a Community Hall in a real sense of being paid for and belonging to the community. Workshops during the day and Neil Gore’s play, Yes! Yes! UCS!  were held to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the UCS work-in on the Clyde in 1971 (for those not very good at arithmetic a Covid year wasn’t carried over, so to be pedantic, 51 years).

Bernardine Evaristio: Girl, Woman, Other, ‘she wants people to bring curiosity to her plays, doesn’t give a damn what they wear’.  

When I came into the hall Jim was there to meet guests. There was no sneaking past in casual wear. They set the seats out with a free copy of The Morning Star (cost £1.50) which made me smile. I didn’t think they still printed it. I’d a quick chat with that old dinosaur, John Foster. He didn’t remember me, but I remembered him in a tutorial asking us if we knew what hegemonic meant. We were more interested in when The Wee Howff opened. He taught us always to cite your sources. Hating Tories was a given.

Rhyming couplets and verse Yes! Yes! UCS! 

I’m up for a writer’s challenge. So a quick sketch of Peter Barra McGahey with his handlebar moustache:

 Fae John Brown’s on the Clyde—James Scott Dry Dock—tae Govan and Yarrows

Land, river and sea, nane belanged to Barra McGahey

The sootie tenemenet walls, Dalnator, where we lay out past

Glasgow Airport moles that didnae depart

An a the rats and birds that flies

pay a feu rent fae their tinker’s tents

the dog that shits, cats that hiss

the foreman’s toot isnae his

Fae James Scott Dry Dock, Yarrows and John Brown’s on the Clyde

Land, river and sea, nane belanged to Barra McGahey

The Morning Star we see.

Yard owners haunds oot free.

Their coats of arms with all its charms

Our cranes feeds your wains memes

With patriot calls to our common country

Futile dreams and poet themes of equality

the match that lights the dout

lame-duck yards goin slow

Tartan paint and a long wait—work to rule

Fair democracy, where do we place we?

We that toil should own the soil and Broomilaw

A welded chain for those that pass laws again

Fae John Brown’s on the Clyde—James Scott Dry Dock—tae Govan and Yarrows

Land, river and sea, nane belanged to Barra McGahey

No part of our common we.

A zip in his trousers at the back

for emergency purposes only

Christmas lights on his welder’s hat

the unfair and grand

none as light-headed as he

In Barra’s place, we place our grace.

None forgotten, or will be.

His gravelly laugh still finds a path

To our common humanity.

We had lunch in the hall, and Jim put on a fine spread. We could make a donation to a food bank or to The Golden Friendship. I grew up in the seventies. I could never have imagined the idea of food banks. Worker’s memories of taking over the yards and forcing Ted Heath’s government to backtrack. Go from spending a possible £6 million government package to nearer £36 million is at the core of our day out. Yes! Yes! UCS! as an antidote to the highest grossing film of 1960, I’m Alright Jack, with the stereotypical bungling and walkouts of the shop steward movement in Union Jack Foundries portrayed by Peter Sellers meant to typify a Britain that was going in the wrong direction.

I asked John Foster if there was still a Communist Party, still a Socialist Movement. In particular, if it had younger members. I don’t think anybody in the hall was under forty, apart from the two actors that played Aggie and Eddi.

I’d guess very few adults under-thirty could tell you what the plaque on Clydebank College labelling a building John Brown’s means. The Clyde has become a feature, a waterfront for selling property.

John Foster did say there was a growing Socialist movement. I’d guess Greta Thunberg, aged 15, sitting in silent protest outside Parliament (Skolstrejk för klimatet) is more important and certainly better known.

Ted Heath’s government was defeated. We had the oil-price hike and stagflation. But the token woman in Heath’s cabinet was Margaret Thatcher. Her destruction of the miner’s union with the help of a media vying with each other to create fictional stories about Arthur Scargill and present them as facts stand out.  M15 and a pumped-up police force and the loss of around 80 000 jobs is well documented in what was described as a war against terrorists. Less well documented is how we lost the propaganda war in which food banks, for example, is sold to us a positive trend.  

When I hear about a critically acclaimed singer and songwriter, I usually do a bit of planning of my own, and nip away before I get caught. I don’t listen to music in the way that other people don’t read books. I could add or go to the theatre. But when I saw a friend and nipped outside during the break of Yes!Yes! UCS!  I admitted Findlay Napier had been the best part of the day. I still don’t listen to music, but he caught me on the good side.

I asked Jim why Neil Gore’s production wasn’t on the stage. He told me it wasn’t deep enough for the set. It was impressive. A mock-up of tenement buildings, with doors that open and decades to slide into. We get to see Heath in cartoonish blue and hear his voice. ‘There’ll be nae bevvying’ cries Jimmy Reid. The roar of the crowd. On two girls’ shoulders the production hangs. I feel for them. Art makes us and unmakes us. This might be their first and last job. The yards were a men’s playground, to channel the dispute through women takes balls.

Anne Ryan was out having a fag at the canal. I’d joked with her that in 1970, everybody would have been out of the hall and smoking. She was the solitary pariah of the path, until another guy ambled over. She asked if I’d smoked, ‘Nah, I was a good boy’.

‘Whit dae yeh think of the show?’

She made a face. ‘He seems to like it.’  

Radical politics doesn’t sell is hardly a headline, even in The Morning Star. George Orwell in his unpublished introduction to Animal Farm described how ‘unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without any need for an official ban’. Ironically, Communist China is probably best at this. Rupert Murdoch, second best. We’ve come a long way since the nineteen-seventies, backward step by backward step. Only the past can live in the present. I brought my curiosity to play. Perhaps Townsend Production doesn’t quite capture the zeitgeist. The fault might be mine. I don’t do musicals and I don’t do theatre. The wrong man in the right place. Go see for yourself. Make your own head space.    

Simon Sebag Montefiore (2003) Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.

Simon Sebag Monefiore won the British history book of the year with his portrait of Stalin and his followers. They were always one step away from being shot, tortured in the Lubianka, and beaten to death. Their families facing the same fate, or being sent away to the gulags. Stalin only wanted true believers in Stalinism, in Marxism, in Leninism, in his leadership to a mythical Bolshevik and true socialist revolution. Self-taught, a voracious reader of books and men. Stalin saw plots and conspiracies everywhere. If they didn’t exist he would invent them. Yet when Hitler betrayed him and his troops invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin refused to believe he’d been duped, despite countless reports telling the Communist leader the day, Sunday 21st June 1941, Operation Barbarossa would take place. The Great Patriotic War, as the Soviet Leaders termed it, had begun and because its dictator refused to believe, the Soviet Union was unprepared.

The Soviet Union paid in blood. Around 27 million war deaths in the USSR, compared to less than 5.5 million German war deaths. British and American casualties of less than half a million. https://worldwar2-database.blogspot.com/2010/10/world-war-ii-casualties.html. Around two million German women raped in the advance to Berlin.   

Montefiore gives us other rough figures of Stalin and his henchmen’s tyranny. Two famines, constant hunger, ‘perhaps 20 million killed, 28 million deported, of whom 18 million had slaved in the gulags.’

‘Yet,’ Montefiore notes, ‘after so much slaughter, there were still believers’.

When what Churchill termed ‘the iron curtain’ had descended, the Allied nations that had won the war had split, Truman was in the Whitehouse, Labour were in power in Britain and Churchill like his country and the British Empire was bankrupt. America had the atomic bomb they had used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Soviet spies had made copies of their plans and the USSR was the second nuclear power with the explosion of the hydrogen bomb. Two world powers stood nose to nose.

True believers, then, as now, with Putin, suggest all this bloodletting and suffering was necessary. That the Soviet Union wouldn’t have been able to industrialise and mechanise in constant five-year plans and drag a largely rural nation in a short amount of time to face the existential threat of fascism and Hitler’s subjugation of what the Nazi leader thought of an inferior breed of Slavic people.  

Stalin, with his pock-marked face, false teeth and birth to a Georgian drunken father that beat him, and a mother that beat him even harder, would have fitted into the Nazi category on inferior. As it did to the Tsarist forces of Nikolai II Alexandrovich Romanov, before his abdication, 15th March 1917 and the rise of the Bolshevik Party led by Lenin. Montefiore deals with this in a chapter termed, That Wonderful Times, Stalin and Nadya, 1878-1932. And Montefiore despite the over 600 pages here, deals with it more fully in his book Young Stalin.   

These of course, weren’t wonderful times for all Soviet Citizens. The Politburo’s war against the kulaks, Stalin compared to Ivan the Terrible’s  culling of the boyars. Grain deliveries were taken from the peasants and millions such as those in Ukraine, the former grain basket of Russia, starved and mothers ate children. Montefiore focus is not on this, but in the semi-cult like activity of those close to Stalin, physically close; they lived beside each other and were in and out of each other’s apartments. Stalin allocated each family a car and an allowance. They held elaborate parties and some women dressed in the latest fashions from Paris. George Orwell got it pretty much right in his book, Animal Farm, with the red court of Stalin mimicking that of the late Tsar’s.

In 1922 Lenin effectively appointed Stalin as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. After Lenin’s death, the threat to Stalin’s power came from Leon Trotsky. He didn’t forget or forgive. Laverenti Beria’s present to Stalin was to send assassins to Mexico and on August 1940 they finally succeeded in murdering him.

Beria was ‘one of the talented dirty trick specialists in quiet and quick deaths’. But he was also head of the NKVD, KGB, and SMERSH. He was prepared to torture, rape and murder in person, but also like Stalin to give others their head before torturing and killing them in turn. Stalin trusted no one. He deified his wife Nadya who committed suicide. He’d know her as a three-year-old girl, but courted and married her when she came to work for Lenin. A culprit had to be found and punished for her death.  Incestuous relationships between members of the Politburo were commonplace. Beria’s son, for example, almost married Stalin’s daughter, Svetlania, who called Beria, ‘Uncle Lara’.  

The oafish Nikita Khrushchev who outwitted Beria to become party leader, but was thought be Stalin to be so dumb as not to present much of a threat to his leadership. Stalin sometimes made him dance for his amusement. Stalin slept little and conducted much of the Party business at all night parties where the Politburo members were forced to attend and drink vodka and other spirits. Some became alcoholic. Stalin held meetings in the darkened  ‘Little Corner’ outside his office where he paced and would dictate policy, head to head, no records. Here he orchestrated search for ‘Rightists’, which led to the purging of the old Bolshevik guard and the Moscow Show Trials. Doctors, Jews, Foreigners, there was always another Rightist around the next corner, ready to be denounced in the Little Corner. Khrushchev was personally responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians.

At the Court of the Red Tsar all members had blood on their hands. And in a note from history the current Tsar, President Vladimir Putin’s grandfather worked as a chef in on of Stalin’s many houses. Before that he’d worked for the Tsar and served Rasputin. He’d served food to Lenin and then Stalin. A former Russian KGB officer is the new Tsar, much like the old Tsar, spreading disinformation and intent on keeping Russia’s place in the sun. Trusting no one is always a good place to begin. Social isolation, monomania, madness. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  The saviour destroys what he tries to save. But he can never be proved wrong. World will tumble before that happens. Stalin died aged 73, his courtiers stood outside, waiting, too scared to intervene, to save him.