Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Book cover

This book turned out to be a lot different than I was expecting. I had read Nguyen’s short story collection The Refugees about a year ago and liked his writing. I was expecting this book, based on the title, to be a set of personal reflections. It is that to some extent, but it is written in a far more “traditionally academic” style than I had anticipated.

Over the course of the book, Nguyen develops related concepts of “just remembering” and “just forgetting,” considering how we as individuals and a society can try to relate to traumatic historical events in a way that does justice to those involved. A key aspect of this process is the recognition of both the humanity and inhumanity within ourselves and within others. Nguyen draws out a progression, wherein we first recognize the humanity within ourselves, then recognize the humanity within others and the inhumanity within ourselves, and finally also recognize the inhumanity in others (moving beyond patronizing them as eternal perfect victims). This was an interesting framework and one that I’ve continued to think about. Having recently watched the Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War, I definitely had some personal sense of this–in the early parts of the movie it was easy to idealize the North Vietnamese communists, but as events unfolded this became less and less tenable, and in the end we are really left with “no heroes.” I also appreciated Nguyen’s discussion of capitalist power over memory and forgetting, and the idea of “memory industries.”

All that said, the writing style did get in my way as a reader. Nguyen is constantly referring to so-and-so’s concept of X; while I realize that he is just trying to give proper credit, it’s not very meaningful to me as a reader not already familiar with most of the other writers he mentions. (Perhaps I’m not really the target audience.) Pushing more of that stuff to the endnotes would have helped me. I also felt that he often quoted “catchy phrases” from other authors that didn’t really add anything to the discussion for me. My favorite parts of the book were his discussions of his personal experiences visiting war-related sites in Vietnam and Cambodia. He has a strong authorial voice, as you would expect from a talented fiction writer, and I wish he would have used it more rather than (often) obscuring it behind a dry academic style.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars