A Man of Two Faces is an audacious and captivating work, purposefully crafted with the flair of a stand-up comedy act. It serves as a comprehensive guide, offering a window into the intricate world of the celebrated author’s literary and academic pursuits, particularly in the realms of war and the ethics of remembrance.
Within the pages of A Man of Two Faces, Viet Thanh Nguyen openly acknowledges that his short story “War Years” pays homage to his parents and their harrowing refugee journey. The matriarch in this tale emerges as an indomitable force of nature, finding solace in reconciling with the painful memories of the past and reaffirming her unwavering determination to survive.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist embarks on a kaleidoscopic memoir, meticulously sifting through his myriad influences and personal experiences.
Nguyen, a celebrated figure in both fiction (known for works like “The Sympathizer” and “The Refugees”) and nonfiction (“Nothing Ever Dies”), pens an autobiography that is deeply intimate and unapologetically political. His storytelling follows a non-linear path, chronicling his family’s escape from war-torn Vietnam in 1975 when he was just four years old.
A conflicted citizen
The narrative unfolds to reveal his childhood in San José, California, where his parents, lovingly referred to as Ba Má in their native tongue, ran a Vietnamese grocery store.
Nguyen’s journey encompasses his evolution as a writer and scholar, while also highlighting his status as a conflicted citizen in what he playfully terms “AMERICA™.” This process inevitably widens the gap between him and his immigrant parents.
Throughout the memoir, Nguyen provides sharp and incisive critiques of Vietnam War films such as “Apocalypse Now,” “Full Metal Jacket,” “The Deer Hunter,” and “The Green Berets.” His condemnation of the latter as “a work of propaganda so spectacular and atrocious that only the Third Reich or Hollywood could have produced it” is both unapologetically scathing and subtly humorous. Amusingly, he includes a page of one-star Amazon reviews of “The Sympathizer,” giving a nod to his mischievous side.
The sections devoted to Ba Má, shadowed by the haze of unreliable memory, strike a poignant chord. While his parents may remain somewhat enigmatic as characters, the narrative remains infused with a sense of melancholy.
The memoir employs idiosyncratic typographical treatments, with passages appearing like lines of poetry and certain words magnified in large type, adding visual diversity, if not always justifying their presence.
For readers seeking a linear narrative, the book may prove frustrating, yet Nguyen unquestionably captures the workings of a sharp and penetrating mind. He complements the text with a selection of black-and-white photographs.
In its emotional depth and profound exploration of cultural influence, “A Man of Two Faces” delves into the necessity of both remembering and forgetting, the promises made and broken by America, and the exceptional life journey of one of the most innovative and significant writers of our time.
Ahmad Nazir is a UAE based freelance writer