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The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, reviewed by Casey Dorman

The Sympathizer

Viet Thanh  Nguyen

Grove Atlantic, 2015


I was on my way to Vietnam to visit my wife’s family and needing something to read on the long flight to Ho Chi Minh City via Tokyo, so I decided to read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, which I had bought six months prior, but only gotten forty pages into. The debut novel of the USC professor was the winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize and it seemed appropriate reading for my trip.

The Vietnam War (or for Vietnamese, the American War) is still a touchy subject in America and particularly among the Vietnamese immigrant community, many of its older members of which (including three of my brothers-in-law) served in the South Vietnamese Army and were imprisoned in concentration camps following the war. My own wife escaped her native country fourteen years after the surrender of the city where she grew up and lived, following a difficult two-year journey by land and sea and residence in a refugee camp, finally arriving in America. I, on the other hand, a college student in the 1960s, had protested the U.S. involvement in the Southeast Asian war and had viewed it as an internal civil strife with no clear good or bad side, and better left alone for the Vietnamese to solve. I learned a different side of the war from my newly acquired relatives after I was married and after I traveled back and forth to Vietnam on several occasions to meet my wife’s remaining family in Saigon.

Things aren’t what they seem when one is presented with only one side of an issue, or even when presented with both sides, but within the framework of a doctrine that interprets all information from a single point of view. Life is complicated and the human mind prefers simplicity. We welcome divisions of black and white, of right and wrong and have great difficulty balancing ourselves within the gray interface between conflicting ideas and positions. Actions are difficult to plan or justify when we see too many sides of an issue.

The dilemma of straddling the middle, either because our sympathies are split between opposing forces, or because we insist on seeing a deeper view of reality than the tunnel vision of allegiance to one point of view affords, is the subject of The Sympathizer. The novel focuses upon the end and immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War, seen through the eyes and heard through the words of a Communist Viet Cong spy who is positioned within a South Vietnamese Army intelligence unit and who accompanies his commanding general to America following the collapse of Saigon. In Los Angeles, among the refugee community, the protagonist’s job is to send back, by secret code, information on the plans of the exiled general and others to return to their country to try to retake it from the Communists who have won the war.

The descriptions of the fall of Saigon and the desperate efforts of those who will fall prey to the victorious Viet Cong to escape with whatever valuables they possess, but often with just their lives, are hair-raising, but the characterization of the intricate plotting within the exiled refugee community, amidst the prejudice encountered from Americans is even more telling. Within the American government there are elements for whom the sting of an American “loss” in Vietnam is unbearable and who are eager to promote the efforts of the displaced South Vietnamese veterans to return to their country to fight again. At the same time, the majority of Americans just want to move on and the presence of Vietnamese refugees in their midst is an unpleasant reminder of an ignominious period in recent U.S. history. Most don’t want to see the civil upheaval caused by the war reemerge. The refugees themselves, often former army officers, distinguished teachers, or successful business people are reduced to being pizza deliverers, chefs, restaurant owners, or menial workers in their new country.

The narrator (he only is referred to as the “Captain,” and never by name) is sympathetic to the plight of his fellow immigrants while he remains a believer in the revolutionary ideas and mission of the followers of Ho Chi Minh. His life and his feelings are complicated by having two best friends—“blood brothers” from childhood—one of whom is a former South Vietnamese soldier who lost his family and is active in developing the resistance army that will return to his homeland to fight, and the other who is his Communist contact in Vietnam, who receives his coded messages and sends him his orders. At the same time he is having an affair with a Japanese-American who sees all of this focus upon one’s country of origin as wasted effort and regards herself as just “American” and resents being treated as if her Asian roots were the most salient thing about her. 

Needless to say, the narrator’s sympathies are torn in a number of directions and the beauty of the novel is the electric, humorous and cynically perceptive style in which the author portrays this dilemma. Viet Thanh Nguyen has been compared to Graham Greene and Franz Kafka, but I found his ability to reveal the absurdity of such a human conundrum with sparkling, often hilarious wit, reminiscent of Saul Bellow. The ingenious use of humor and creative riffs of ludicrousness are enough to carry the novel by themselves.

The delicate balance the narrator tries to achieve is doomed to failure, because his efforts are to be judged by one side or another in a split population of opponents who have chosen vehement rejection of each other as the sine qua non of their identity. When he returns to Vietnam as part of an opposition reconnaissance force hoping to foment counter revolution (but all the while being a loyal spy for the Communists who now run the country), he is captured and must try to explain himself to the “Commissar” of the prison camp to which he is sent. His “confession” to his Communist captors, which is the first 307 pages of the book, is too nuanced, too impartial and even-handed in his appraisal of both the enemy and of his own side, to pass muster. He cannot be forgiven and return to his homeland unless he re-assumes the kind of tunnel vision necessary for a revolutionary. He cannot do it; in fact, he disagrees with the premise. He argues that the revolution, which sought to overturn greed, prejudice, and inhumanity toward one’s fellow, has become the very thing it despised, mostly because it makes all humanitarian, liberal assessment of one’s fellows subservient to its rigid dictates. Fortunately, the Commissar who turns out to be his childhood friend, appears to sympathize with him, but disagrees in terms of what the revolution requires in order to succeed. The Commissar recognizes that the narrator cannot survive in the new Vietnam and allows him to escape, albeit as a “boat person” with an unknown fate, presumably back in America.

While “The Sympathizer” may be a Vietnamese American’s attempt to voice the dilemma of a people who split themselves in two and a large segment of whom became strangers in strange lands, caught between trying to assimilate and trying to remain loyal to the history and culture they continued to value, it is also a brilliant description of the anguish of maintaining one’s thoughts and sympathies poised in the crux of cognitive dissonance. Reality is many sided and multilayered, and to try to see it clearly is not just psychologically painful but also leads to rejection from a society that prefers loyalties, opinions and thoughts to be phrased in black or white. For the immigrant or refugee this dilemma may be more explicit as he or she weighs assimilation against retention of culture and loyalty to one’s past, but the quandary is present for all of us.

The Sympathizer is about the Vietnamese-American experience at the time of the first great influx of Vietnamese into the United States. It is also a story of the human psyche and the human condition, which transcends that particular experience and thus has a message for everyone who reads it.


Reader Comments (3)

This is a wonderful review that makes me want to read the book. Thank you, Casey.

March 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAnca Vlasopolos

Bravo Casey. Wonderful thought provoking piece.

March 27, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDariel Garner

Like 'Anca Vlasopolos' comment above, this excellent review really compels me to want to read "The Sympathizer". The description of the author's style as "electric, humorous and cynically perceptive" is a big positive for me.
Those of us who had to decide whether to protest the war In Vietnam in the 60's or support it, after all this time, still carry questions in our hearts as to whether or not our choices were correct. It's hard for our adult children to realize what a moral dilemma it was for us. Nothing was simple.
Interestingly, while reading this review, my mind went to the complexity of that other war of life--divorce. So I'm thinking the fact that I veered off in that direction seems to illustrate the validity of the last sentence of Casey Dorman's review: "It is also a story of the human psyche and the human condition, which transcends that particular experience and thus has a message for everyone who reads it."

April 7, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBillie Kelpin

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