Culture Magazine

Viet Thanh Nguyen's Pulitzer and the Continuing Apocalypse, Now

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
David Streitfeld in the NYTimes:
LOS ANGELES — Viet Thanh Nguyen has been wrestling with “Apocalypse Now” for most of his life — as a boy, a college student, a scholar, a writer of fiction. The movie was initially a source of pain, then a puzzle to be understood, and finally an inspiration for his novel about a Vietnamese spy, “The Sympathizer.”
Even now, after a rapturous reception for the novel, his first, that included the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Mr. Nguyen’s feelings about Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 war epic are still somewhat raw.
I was struck by this paragraph:
“People just like me were being slaughtered,” Mr. Nguyen said. “I felt violated.” A decade later, as a student at Berkeley, he talked about the scene for a film class. He began rationally, he remembered, and then realized his voice was full of rage. “It was an antiwar movie about the war in Vietnam, but the movie was about Americans,” he said. “The Vietnamese were silent and erased.”
Apocalypse Now was loosely based on Heart of Darkness. China Achebe said much the same thing about Heart of Darkness in his essay, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'" (Massachusetts Review. 18. 1977):
Students of Heart of Darkness will often tell you that Conrad is concerned not so much with Africa as with the deterioration of one European mind caused by solitude and sickness. They will point out to you that Conrad is, if anything, less charitable to the Europeans in the story than he is to the natives, that the point of the story is to ridicule Europe's civilizing mission in Africa. A Conrad student informed me in Scotland that Africa is merely a setting for the disintegration of the mind of Mr. Kurtz.
Which is partly the point. Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world.

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