I read and reread the first page of this book several times before I finally powered through a little. The opening page is dense and intriguing, but it also clearly portends an immersive, intense, and bleak novel. It’s also clearly a complex novel (not very much like we tend to get these days). Our narrator is a double (or triple?) agent writing a kind of confession. An adherent to Ho Chi Minh Communism and the North Vietnamese war efforts, but also a mole in the West, we get a rich novel that tells several stories at once, might all be lies, or might be like everything associated with the US involvement (and French too) in Vietnam, a huge amount of information with no obvious and easy answer moving forward. It’s the kind of frustration that comes from trying to understand history as it’s happening.
We are told very early what kind of uncomfortable relationship this novel is going to have with being a clear judge of history when our narrator reminds of Hegel’s definition of tragedy, which, to paraphrase, is not the clash between right and wrong, but right and right. And while I don’t think this novel really agrees with the idea that the US is right, it would certainly suggest that the US believes itself to be right.
The narrative is a complex one that often involves our narrator functioning on several layers at once. He’s the writer, working through his confession (ala Humbert Humbert? A little. ala Invisible Man? Yes, that too) and story. He’s also acting a loyal adherent to the cause, faking his adherence to a different cause, pretending to be both daft and adept at different times (even in the same moment) and trying to live a life worth living (within a cause). Sometimes it feels or can feel a little jumbled, but it’s also among the smartest books I’ve read in a long time.