Swiftly paced narrative of a Vietnamese James Bond who worked both sides of the game.
Bass (English and Journalism/Univ. of Albany; The Predictors, 1999, etc.), whose 1996 book Vietnamerica concerned Amerasian children of the Vietnam War, returns to Indochina to flesh out a story he wrote for the New Yorker a few years ago. His subject, a former Reuters and Time correspondent named Pham Xuan An, proved to be a lively, often prickly interlocutor. He had received official clearance for the magazine piece, but he still knew things that no one else was supposed to know—most likely why the man known as Agent Z.21 chose not to speak on the record for the book. The result is “the unauthorized biography of a spy,” Bass writes. An, the author reveals, was renowned for his skills as a reporter and writer—but also as a storyteller capable of spinning entertaining yarns over a hotel bar for hours on end. He was also famed, among certain compatriots, for endlessly detailed reports that made Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap “clap their hands with glee and exclaim over the verve and narrative grip of the Tolstoy in their midst.” It was An, for instance, who revealed to Hanoi information that American ground forces were first on their way to Vietnam. “This would not be the only time that Pham Xuan An got a scoop from Time long before the magazine’s readers back in the United States,” writes Bass. An saved the lives of several fellow journalists, though, including Robert Sam Anson. At the end of the war, he put his family on helicopters leaving Saigon for American ships offshore, then gladly greeted the Communist liberators—though he had to serve time in a reeducation camp simply for having been tainted by contact with the West.
Bass writes himself into the story too much, but the intriguing character of An provides the center of a fascinating account.