As an American, it was difficult for me to eliminate any predisposed biases I might have had before reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel, The Sympathizer. Americans look back on the horrific war in Vietnam differently than native-born Vietnamese citizens do. I’m no different, and I was interested in reading a story where a narrator relays what it was like to grow up and serve in that hell. What makes this novel intriguing is that the reader sees the story unfold through the eyes of a captain in the Southern Vietnamese Army, but the author ups the ante by having this protagonist serve as a double agent for the Viet Cong. So the reader not only gets to see the perspective of someone serving the Vietnamese Army of the Republic, accepting American military aid at bayonet point, but also from the dual perspective of a North Vietnamese communist who clandestinely undermines his enemies, even while establishing close, life-long bonds with those he’s betraying. Moreover, he is a French-Vietnamese half-breed who struggles to find acceptance among his own, which ultimately serves as the impetus for justifying his spying and espionage.
The story commences with the fall of Saigon, and from there the failure of the joint American-South Vietnamese war effort is laid bare in harrowing detail. As the communist liberators roll into the city and the citizens flee in panic, the reader feels the tremendous sense of despair as a decades-spanning war, resulting in a calamitous loss of life, comes to an end. Beginning the story with the end of the war is an interesting choice by Nguyen, but it’s important for the reader to feel the utter sense of defeat the Southern Vietnamese feel at this moment in time, particularly through the general that the narrator reports directly to, a general who is unwilling to accept that the war is indeed over, and that he is on the losing side. This first act sets up what is to come, which is to show the reader how a soldier transitions from a life of military service to the life of a refugee, a station in life offering one little control over his own fate.
The next part of the story focuses on the captain’s life in Southern California as he and the other Vietnamese refugees in his community attempt to carve out meager existences. Their lives in Vietnam may not have been perfect, but at the very least the military personnel were driven by a sense of duty and purpose, and as outsiders they must come to terms with their new realities. The captain continues to serve as a sleeper agent, reporting to his North Vietnamese handlers while still having the ear and the confidence of his Southern Vietnamese superior. Another nuance the author gives his narrator is that the captain also once studied at the college level in the states, and this gives him an edge when analytically deconstructing their tumultuous relationship with their new American hosts, who many of the refugees feel are obligated to provide asylum for the displaced. The most interesting scenes happen when the captain and the other refugees interact with Americans, particularly American scholars. This is where the novel delves into the philosophical, with a heavy focus on the historical and turbulent relationships between the American and the “Oriental,” the Westerner and the Far Easterner, the imperialist colonizer and the native peasant, the capitalist and the communist.
A well-handled detour that the story takes is when the captain is hired by a Hollywood director to serve as an adviser on a forthcoming film, The Hamlet, to offer his expertise on the Vietnamese psyche, endeavoring to lend the movie an air of authenticity. The reason that these chapters engage the American reader in particular is because of the country’s fascination with war movies from the Vietnam era. Nguyen seems to effortlessly capture the film makers’ general misconception and misplaced sense of civic duty through wholly misguided artistic visions in their execution of the films they make. The captain does what he can to help, but it’s apparent he becomes jaded by the irreconcilable differences in mindset between himself and his Hollywood employer. The tension between the two mounts to a startling indirect confrontation. The action and dialogue are intriguing enough, but the underlying observation of the American love affair with war cinema is what’s really compelling here.
I don’t want to comment too much on where the story goes from there because I don’t want to give away major plot points, but themes dealing with identity crises, chicanery, moral turpitude, and love versus lust are all explored before the story takes an unexpected turn, gradually culminating in a brutal apex. The author revisits themes involving friendship, loyalty, and duty that will evoke an entire range of emotions, some positive but mostly negative, from the reader. Nguyen remains steadfast in lacing the story with glimpses of hope throughout, but they are often fleeting as the reader is continually forced to confront the barbarism that was the war in Vietnam. There is a level of depth to this exploration, as Nguyen presents the reader with a protagonist who is in command of his emotional state, who is both circumspect and aloof. Spy status aside, the captain only allows his thoughts to be known in a written confession, which is how the narrative is presented for most of the novel. The characters he interacts with only think they know who the real man is.
The Sympathizer is more than social commentary on the war in Vietnam from a man who’s lived in two worlds at war with each other. It is a testament to the strength of the human soul, not only in terms of mere survival, but also in coming face-to-face with the most savage parts of our nature, and in taking responsibility for the cruelty we inflict upon others. The reader is in good hands with Viet Thanh Nguyen, who handles his subject matter responsibly. Moreover, the author tells the story with a grace that is hard to pull off when the setting is from one of the most atrocious conflicts in human history.