Starting during the last days of the Vietnam War, the novel follows a mole working for a high-ranking South Vietnamese general who is evacuated from Saigon only to continue spying for the Viet Cong on American soil.
This is a darkly humorous book, one that is equally hilarious and disturbing, amusing and sickening. There are grotesquely comical episodes, and scenes that will make you heave. The effect of events is increased by the claustrophobic atmosphere caused by the first person narration and the distance created between the protagonist and everyone else due to him being a spy. It truly feels like he is a man on an island, remote from everyone else, because the knowledge he has and the information he wants disqualify him from forming a genuine relationship with anyone. He does a lot of rationalizing and justifying in his own mind but still doesn’t manage to make himself less isolated.
Hence it also becomes a meditation on the dichotomy and incongruousness of a man’s nature who is not one thing but two things at once: a man with a conscience, but also a ruthless spy; a revolutionary, but also a collaborator; a true man of two minds. At the same time, he is nothing at all and belonging nowhere: As someone born to a Vietnamese mother but a French father and educated in the US, he is a bastard and a half-breed in more than one way. It is a fittingly ironic ending when the mole, the self-described man of two faces, is confronted by his blood brother who has become, due to injuries, the man with no face.
However, the overarching themes of the book are the senselessness of war and, tying in with the aforementioned psychological question of belonging, the issue of identity. The impact of colonialism, war, and finally the necessity to flee leaves many of the book’s characters bereft and directionless. In this instance, freedom and independence mean the loss of self, and the pursuit of happiness is just an empty promise. How the refugees see America versus how America sees itself is a highlight of the book, and anyone from the West should appreciate the uncomfortable truth about the inherent arrogance on display when it comes to other cultures, experiences, and viewpoints. In some instances, a little more subtlety wouldn’t have been amiss but I guess it was the author’s intention to make his points in a frequently blatant and forceful way.
Overall, Nguyen is a very good writer with a vast vocabulary and a talent for not only perfectly placed wordplays, but also for making you laugh at things that should not be funny. The book concerns itself with some heavy subject matter, and especially the extended torture scenes are very hard to stomach. If you are not deterred by that, this is a compelling read, and one that will leave you amused and appalled in about equal measure.