More than just memory

Patrick Deer

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An Australian soldier guarding a suspected Viet Cong at Nui Dat, 1966. Photograph: Tim Page

In a recent interview, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnamese American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen describes his ambition “to be able to write fiction like criticism and criticism like fiction” in reshaping contemporary representations of war and memory. The two books he has published in the past year, his debut novel The Sympathizer and the critical study Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War far exceed this goal. Lucky for us, perhaps, that Nguyen wrote his extraordinary novel before he applied himself to his critical study. The Sympathizer stands on its own as a captivating, often comic and ultimately harrowing war novel that follows its characters from the fall of Saigon into exile in California, paramilitary adventurism on the border of Laos, capture and torture at the hands of communist cadre in a re-education camp and ending with the refugee plight of the boat people. Its creative power resonates into the first person critical voice of Nothing Ever Dies, offering a liberating, hybrid intervention into what Nguyen calls the “high ground” of recent scholarly debates about popular memory, mourning and melancholy and an evocative chronicle of travels through the “low ground” of sites of memory in Vietnamese America, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

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