The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen is a compelling confession that begins in April 1975 when the North Vietnamese army is nearing Saigon and the tottering, necrotic South Vietnamese government is collapsing. In the first sentence, our narrator confesses, “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces…also a man of two minds.” And just as he is of two minds, he is of two peoples, the French and the Vietnamese, and he is a sympathizer in two ways. As a Communist sympathizer, he is a spy attached to the General, one of the leaders of the South Vietnamese Army. He is also, though, a man who is able to see both sides of any issue. He can identify with and understand the South Vietnamese whom he is betraying and regret their presumed fate at the hands of the oncoming North Vietnamese while rejoicing in the liberation of his country. “As Hegel said, tragedy was not the conflict between right and wrong but right and right , a dilemma none of us who wanted participate in history could escape.”
His last night is spent with his two best friends, self-styled musketeers whose lifelong friendship was forged in schoolyard battles. There is Bon, the loyal soldier and assassin for the CIA’s infamous Phoenix program. Then there is Man, our narrator’s secret spymaster who will remain behind to lead the new country and receive the sympathizer’s missives from the refugee community.
As the General’s aide, our narrator chose those lucky enough to escape on one of the last flights out of Saigon and he made sure his friend Bon and his family were included. The scene of their departure is chaotic and dangerous with bullets flying and mayhem everywhere. It was a cinematic and hair-raising introduction.
After that introduction, you would think Orange County would be a dull affair, but of course, there are the challenges of settlement. With his ability to see all sides, he is an observer, an anthropologist of sorts, studying the refugee community and the larger American culture. His keen eye is matched only by this wit, as you can see from this example describing the department Chair at the university where he had a minimum wage job clerking for the department.
“As no one on the faculty possessed any knowledge of our country, the Chair enjoyed engaging me in long discussion of our culture and language. Hovering somewhere between seventy and eighty years old, the Chair nestled in an office feathered with the books, papers, notes and tchotchkes accumulated over a lifetime career devoted to the study of the Orient. He had hung an elaborate Oriental rug on his wall, in lieu, I suppose of an actual Oriental…”
This book is very much about America, American jingoism, imperialism and racism, but never pedantic or preachy. It is too busy for that. In its 367 pages it has to cover the escape from Vietnam, some backstory of his childhood in the North and his college years in America, his years in the diaspora in Orange County, his romances, his assassinations carried out on behalf of the General, his role as an advisor on the epic Vietnam film that will define the war, his work as a spy, and how he came to be writing his confessions over and over again for this Commandant.
In Orange County, in addition to working at the college he attended years ago, he also continues to assist the General who is busy plotting to be Vietnam’s MacArthur, training his former officers, now bus boys, fry cooks, janitors and whatnots, aided by the CIA officer Claude who is surely The Quiet American and who personally oversaw our narrator’s training as an interrogator back in Vietnam. Our narrator is continuing to serve the General and the Viet Cong, sending missives to his “Aunt in Paris” in code based on Asian Communism and the Oriental Method of Destruction by Richard Hedd (one of the least subtle jokes in the entire novel). He eventually meets Richard Hedd in a hilarious scene late in the book.
He sees America with the eyes of an outsider, noting that we are not promised life, liberty and happiness, but merely the pursuit. “Now a guarantee of happiness—that’s a great deal. But a guarantee to be allowed to pursue the jackpot of happiness? Merely an opportunity to buy a lottery ticket. Someone would surely win millions, but millions would surely pay for it.” Well, when you put it like that.
The book is full of humor and hilarity from his description of his youthful and inventive masturbatory adventure with a squid to his difficult attempt to sneak some actual Vietnamese people into The Hamlet, a film so obviously based on Apocalypse Now that its famed “thespian’s” final words are “The whore, the whore.” He and the “auteur” director are at odds, “Perhaps I went too far when I invited him to perform fellatio on me, but he also went too far in threatening to kill me.” He realizes that trying to get an authentic Vietnamese experience into the American representation of the war is futile. “They owned the means of production, and therefore the means of representation, and the best that we could ever hope for was to get a word in edgewise before our anonymous deaths.”
And it is true, Vietnam is, as our narrator points out, “the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors.” The Sympathizer is powerful effort to redress that imbalance, bringing the Vietnamese voice to the forefront.
The Sympathizer is often laugh-out-loud funny, frequently eliciting snickers at this or that bit of snark such as the description of an elderly department chair and Orientalist whose campus office was decorated with “an elaborate Oriental ugh on his wall, in lieu, I suppose, of an actual Oriental.” However, it is also violent, grisly and harrowing in the extreme. The narrator was an interrogator in South Vietnam and was trained by the CIA in torture techniques that he used and in the final, shocking and often horrifying chapters, where he is perfecting his confessions for the Commandant and the mysterious Commissar whose identity you will suspect and anticipate and still be surprised by, torture becomes so concrete and absolute, you have to confront our own complicity in what continues to be done in our name.
For all the laughter and the horror, the snark and the anger, there is nothing cynical about The Sympathizer or our narrator, though maybe he would like to be cynical. No, he remains what he calls “that most hopeful of creatures, a revolutionary in search of a revolution.”
Read this book. I give it 5 stars because it brings a fresh perspective on the Vietnam War, on the refugee experience and because during this time where we are reprising the mistakes of the past and making even worse mistakes with refugees from our current wars, it is perhaps a duty on our part to see ourselves from the eyes of those who come here. And, even if it were not an important book at this place and time, it is well-written with mordant wit and all the action, adventure and intrigue anyone could possible demand.