This is a disturbing book, beautifully written, as well as shocking.
It opens in Saigon in April 1975 in the villa of a General of the South Vietnamese army. His right hand man, the Captain, unbeknownst to the General and anyone else is an undercover Vietcong agent. In the chaos of defeat, the Captain, the General and numerous others flee Vietnam and make it to America where the Captain continues his spying activity. The Captain finds himself in a dilemma and the opening lines hook you in. “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces… I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.”
Reading this gripping Pulitzer Prize winning novel, I felt the constant tug of being in two minds. The Captain is the son of a peasant woman and a French priest which makes for an unhealthy start in life as he is ridiculed and treated as an outsider, eternally in conflict.
Having watched movies and read about the Vietnam War, it has only ever been from a Western point of view. This novel paints a very different picture. In America, the Captain is assigned the job of being a cultural adviser to the director of a movie about the war which we soon realise is Apocalypse Now.
“An audience member might love or hate this Movie, or dismiss it as only a story, but those emotions are irrelevant. What mattered was that the audience member, having paid for a ticket, was willing to let American ideas and values seep into the vulnerable tissue of his brain and the absorbent soil of his heart.”
There are many side observations like this throughout the narrative which makes the reader think and reflect. There are also moments of pure comedy bordering on the ludicrous which is an antidote to the horror of what people are forced to do during a war. The Captain’s torment grows with the ghost of deeds done past and present.
The first half of this book pummels you along, the middle is reflective and as times slow with the end almost unbearable to read. Yet it is an important book for all sides of politics and philosophies.
I can’t imagine being displaced from the safety and security of my home. I can’t even fathom what it’s like to survive without food, friends, family and shelter. I can’t visualise being surrounded by so much hate, gunfire, shelling and death. I can’t contemplate a fear so chilling that I’m forced to take an incredible risk to get out of a dangerous situation.
Yet one person on the planet every two seconds flees on foot, by vehicle or boat to escape and seek sanctuary elsewhere. I wonder why anyone would risk a buffeting sea until I actually consider the environment of where they’ve come from.
June 20 is World Refugee Day. There were 51.2 million refugees reported in 2013 which exceeded the numbers after WW2. This has grown to an extraordinary and record number of 68 million refugees in 2017. While conflicts in Syria, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Congo areas continue, the numbers of displaced people will grow.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) recent report, one in every 110 people on our planet is a refugee, internally displaced or is seeking asylum. It’s a staggering figure but what is even more tragic is that 25 million are under the age of 18.
Most of us in the Western world are very fortunate and we all have a responsibility to do something whether it’s to support organisations who help refugees such as the UNHCR (http://www.unhcr.org/uk/), agitate our own government and elected officials or simply take the time to reflect and change our attitude and mindset about our fellow human beings.
Many of us would no doubt have relatives or ancestors who were refugees. Indeed, within my own family there are refugees from WW2 and the Greek Civil War.
Refugees don’t choose to run because they want to, they’re put into a position where they simply have to.