The Sympathizer

By Viet Thanh Nguyen

Random House | 2015

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Sympathizer has won almost every prestigious award conferred on a book published in the United States—The Pulitzer Prize, The Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the California Book Award for First Fiction, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and so on.

I can see why. Viet Thanh Nguyen a tour de force of a writer. His work bristles with intelligence and compassion and bites of satire. He plunges into his story:

“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as much. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides….

“But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear.

“The month in question was April, the cruelest month. It was the month in which a war that had run on for a very long time would lose its limbs, as it the way of wars.”

The April of which he writes is April, 1975, and the war is the Viet Nam War, and the activity on the 30th of that month is, after seven years of fruitless, bloody conflict that took the lives of many, the Viet Cong army at last smashed through the gates of the American Embassy in Saigon and from its balcony waved Viet Cong flags in victory, while all American personnel and many Viet Nam sympathizers fled by whatever means they could—by airplane, helicopter, and boat—i.e., the Fall of Saigon.

Our Viet Nam narrator, referred to only as “the Captain,” has been an Aide de Camp to a South Viet Nam General and his family, and so flees with them, boarding one of the last planes out of the country. First, they go to Guam and then onto the United States, where they settle in Los Angeles. Much of the book describes their life there in the aftermath of the war:

“Our society had been a kleptocracy of the highest order, the government doing its best to steal from the Americans, the average man doing his best to steal from the government, the worst of us doing our best to steal from each other…. Now, despite my sense of fellow feeling for my exiled countrymen, I could not also help but feel that our country [Viet Nam] was being born again, the accretions of foreign corruption cleansed by revolutionary flames. Instead of tax refunds, the revolution would redistribute ill-gotten wealth, following the philosophy of more to the poor. What the poor did with their socialist succor was up to them. As for me, I used my capitalist refund to buy enough booze to keep Bon and me uneasily steeped in amnesia until the next week….”

The General and his wife, a lady who in Viet Nam hadn’t lifted a finger to do any actual work, now ran a Viet Nam restaurant in Chinatown. The sad irony is that he periodically donned his uniform with all its medals and conducted war maneuvers in the desert east of Los Angeles, still believing one day he will be able to return and oust the Communists.

Sad to say, our narrator becomes complicit in two murders, both members of their own organization who were suspected of some vague kind of disloyalty, and he is haunted by their ghosts. After he seduces the General’s daughter, he is disowned by the General and his wife and sent back to Viet Nam by way of Cambodia. When he and his friend Bon reenter Viet Nam, they are captured and imprisoned by the Communist government; they are subjected to “reeducation” and tortured.

Our Captain is reduced to a state of catatonia; he has lost so much weight he is but a shadow of his former self. One of the methods used to extract the right confession from him has been to deprive him of sleep, so when it finally ceases, for a while all he wants to do is sleep. Fearing responsibility for what he’s done, his torturer releases Bon and him, and they are shipped out of the country.

My reading of The Sympathizer coincided with the airing of 10-part series on the Viet Nam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novak on PBS television. The last segment, the tenth, describes the Fall of Saigon. The Americans had not kept their promise and left thousands of Viet Nam sympathizers to fend for themselves, to face the Viet Cong without military assistance from the United States. I held my breath. Would this result in yet another bloodbath in a war that had seen the deaths of so many, both soldiers and civilians?

Maybe by then everyone had seen enough blood shed, as the Viet Cong were lenient, as these things go, preferring to send capitalist sympathizers to camps to be reeducated, and slowly the country began to heal.

Our narrator underwent hours and hours of reeducation yet maintained his intellectual independence. He was of two minds about life in Viet Nam and the United States.

 “My chances of returning to America were small, and I thought with regret of all the things I would miss about America: the TV dinner; air-conditioning; a well-regulated traffic system that people actually followed; a relatively low rate of death by gunfire, at least compared with our homeland; the modernist novel; freedom of speech, which if not as absolute as Americans liked to believe, was still greater in degree than in our homeland; sexual liberation; and, perhaps most of all, that omnipresent American narcotic, optimism, the unending flow of which pour through the American mind continuously, whitewashing the graffiti of despair, rage, hatred and nihilism scrawled there by the black hoodlums of the unconscious.”

̶̶  Jane M McCabe is an associate editor of The Neworld Review.


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