****Lincoln in the Bardo & ***The Sympathizer

Cemetery Angel

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

How many books can you read in a lifetime, or what’s left of it? (To calculate the limits on your literary throughput, check this out). Whatever the number is, it’s finite, so the books you choose may as well be good ones. Here are two prize-winners I recently ticked off my list.

****Lincoln in the Bardo

By George Saunders – This, the first novel by Saunders, a highly-regarded short story writer, appeared on many “best books” list for 2017. “The bardo” is a Buddhist concept of a state of being between death and rebirth. The Lincoln in question is our 16th President.

It’s still the early days of the Civil War, yet death and the prospect of death loom over the country. Willie Lincoln, the President’s twelve-year-old son lies upstairs in the White House, ill with typhoid fever. Nothing can be done but wait. Then, nothing can be done. The funeral is arranged, the small still body is placed in its coffin, and the coffin is set in a niche in a borrowed tomb. Yet Lincoln cannot let go.

In the cemetery after dark, the spirits of the bardo emerge. Dispossessed of their bodies, they cannot accept that they are dead and resist the mysterious forces that attempt to persuade them that they are. These spirits counsel Willie on how to deal with his grief-stricken father.

Written in many voices, in snippets, like the libretto for a manic and desperate chorus of the dead, the story is full of humanity and sorrow, with flashes of dark humor and, ultimately, deep compassion for the grieving Lincoln. Overwhelmed by his son’s death, the President knows he cannot indulge his grief for long, with the chaos of war rising around him.

***The Sympathizer

Written by Viet Thanh Nguyen, narrated by François Chau. Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, The Sympathizer opens with the chaos and terror of Saigon’s fall in the waning days of the Vietnam war. In the middle, the scene migrates to California, in the community of formerly powerful refugees, now consigned to marginal lives, and finally returns to the hostile territory of Communist-led Vietnam, where the first person narrator—“the captain”—is captured and interrogated. This book, readers are told, is his “confession.”

The captain early on declares himself a man with two minds, equally able to see both the tragedy and the farce of the war destroying his country. “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces,” he says. Though he works for a general in the South Vietnamese Army, he is a spy for North Vietnam. Still on assignment, he accompanies the general in exile and reports on his continuing and hopeless plans to return to their native country to wage counterrevolution.

Filled with both nostalgia and cynicism, the captain undertakes various duties, some banal, some murderous, and the latter haunt him. His most irony-filled task is accompanying a Hollywood filmmaker to the Philippines to assure that “real Vietnamese people” have a role in the auteur’s shallow cinematic depiction of the war. In that process, he realizes the real Vietnamese people were no more than extras in the war itself. Like the movie, it was an American production.

For my taste, the interrogation section of the book dragged. Chau’s narration lacked the propulsive energy to carry me through nearly 14 hours of listening. Better in print.

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