Viet Thanh Nguyen, The sympathizer (#BookReview)

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The sympathizerA cover blurb on my edition of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer, captures the novel perfectly when it calls it “intelligent, relentlessly paced, and savagely funny” (Wall Street Journal). I loved reading it. It’s quite coincidental that I read this straight after Hoa Pham’s Lady of the realm (my review) but they make an interesting pairing because both deal with the Vietnam (or American) War and its aftermath, both are written in first person from a Vietnamese character’s point of view, and both question what happens when revolutions win. But, their approaches couldn’t be more different.

The sympathizer starts with an in-your-face statement by a never-named narrator: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” It is April 1975 and the war has ended with the capture of Saigon by the North Vietnamese Army, but in the second paragraph we discover something else about our narrator. He is not talking to us but to a “Commandant”. So, where is he, and why is he talking to a Commandant? We don’t fully find out until near the end, although we soon discover that he is being held captive and is writing his “confession”. The story he tells, the story we read, is his confession. And what he confesses to is his life as a North Vietnamese mole in the close employ of a South Vietnamese General.

In this role, he leaves Saigon in the chaotic evacuation and ends up in Southern California, still working (now unpaid) for the General, while at the same time sending covert reports back to his “aunt” in Paris. In other words, in the USA, he maintains his life as a man of “two faces”, a man who is “able to see any issues from both sides”. He can do this, not only because of his role as a mole, but also because he is a bastard, the son of a Vietnamese woman and a French priest who had seduced her and had never acknowledged his son. With feet in both camps – the Orient and the Occident – he is well-placed to comment on their respective cultures and actions while, at the same time, symbolising their conflicts, confusions and misunderstandings. Near the end he says:

I was always ever divided, although it was only partially my fault. While I chose to live two lives and be a man of two minds, it was hard not to, given how people had always called me a bastard. Our country itself was cursed, bastardised, partitioned into north and south, and if it could be said of us that we chose division and death in our uncivil war, that was also only partially true. We had not chosen to be debased by the French, to be divided by them into an unholy trinity of north, centre and south, to be turned over to the great powers of capitalism and communism for further bisection …

What makes this book such a great read – besides its heart and themes – is its writing. Nguyen migrated to the USA with his parents when he was 4 years old. In the notes at the back of my edition, he describes growing up in a Vietnamese enclave in California, and how he’d decided that he couldn’t live life well with two languages, so decided to “master one and ignore the other. But in mastering that language and its culture, I learned too well how Americans viewed Vietnamese”. This seems to the main driver for this book – to tell a story about the Vietnam War from a Vietnamese perspective – but his aim is wider than that too. It is to comment on war, on its futility, and on the way American culture seems to thrive on it.

The first chapter introduces us to the central feature of Nguyen’s writing, satire, and my, it shows how well he mastered his adopted language. If the pace is relentless, as the Wall Street Journal says, so is the satire. Its targets are broad, and non-discriminatory, though, admittedly, American life and culture bear the major brunt. In Chapter 3, he discusses prostitution:

I am merely noting that the creation of native prostitutes to service foreign privates is an inevitable outcome of a war of occupation, one of those nasty little side effects of defending freedom that all the wives, sisters, girlfriends, mothers, pastors, and politicians in Smallville, USA, pretend to ignore behind waxed and buffed wall of teeth as they welcome their soldiers home, ready to treat any unmentionable afflictions with the penicillin of American goodness.

The language is sly and wry, as our narrator of the divided-soul teases us – provokes us – again and again with dualities and paradoxes. Literally, he is a communist sympathiser, but his true sympathies are broader. “Although it’s not correct, politically speaking”, he says, he feels “sympathy” for the South Vietnamese poor who were attacked by their own soldiers. “No one asks poor people if they want war”, he writes.

And so the book continues. There are comic set-pieces such as his role as a Vietnamese expert on the making of a film that reads very much like Apocalypse Now. The experience teaches him that not controlling the way you are represented results in “a kind of death”. There are also awful scenes of torture and violence, including those where he is ordered by the General, even in the USA, to eliminate apparent opponents. He says of the General’s plans:

The General’s men, by preparing themselves to invade our communist homeland, were in fact turning themselves into new Americans. After all, nothing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence.

This idea of “freedom and independence” is the complex conundrum that underpins the fundamental irony of the book, from its opening chapters when Ho Chi Minh is quoted as saying “Nothing is more important than independence and freedom”. What these mean, what people do in their name, and why so often they are taken away by the very people who called for them, are scrutinised by Nguyen via his narrator.

The sympathizer is, in many ways, a bitter novel, because it sees clearly into the human heart, and its messy, divided nature, its “moth-eaten moral covers” – but the bitterness is offset by a sense of resilience and a belief that it need not be like this. A big thanks to my Californian friend Carolyn for sending me this.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) was also impressed by this novel.

Viet Thanh Nguyen,
The sympathizer
New York: Grove Press, 2015
ISBN: 9780802124944

39 thoughts on “Viet Thanh Nguyen, The sympathizer (#BookReview)

  1. Very good novel and a biting critique of war, revolution, racism, the intolerance of dogma and politics, not to mention the USA. And a good review, WG.

    • Thanks Ian. Glad you enjoyed the novel too – and my review. It was hard – partly because I’m struggling with yet another cold, but partly because it is so all encompassing as you say. Such a great read – every page had something I wanted to remember.

  2. There is so much happening in 382 pages, Sue. I am adequately inspired to read the book.

    How did you feel when your next read was also on the lines of Vietnam? After reading ‘Alone Berlin’ for German Lit Month, I still can’t reading anything on the holocaust.

    • Good question Deepika. I didn’t have to do The sympathizer next but I’d already decided before I started The Pham that I’d do it, and decided to stick with it. While Pham does depict some violence, it’s not the over-riding impression of the book somehow, so I didn’t think too much about it. In fact, I think I found it useful because while one was short and the other fairly long, one set in Vietnam and one mostly in the US, they complement each other nicely.

  3. Thanks for the mention, Sue… I think it’s evidence of the richness of this book that we both found different and complementary things to admire.
    Strangely, although I’ve also read The Pham’s book, I found their respective lengths almost irrelevant. I took longer to read hers than I thought I would because there were aspects of it that made me linger over it, and it look less time to read The Sympathiser than I thought it would because it was fast-paced.

    • Yes, I was glad you did things like the immigrant experience because I really wanted to do the war one! (I love that long quote you used. It’s one of the memorable ones from the book.)

      Interestingly, I took me quite some time to read The sympathiser because, while it was fast-paced the writing was also so good I wanted to think about what he was doing! I’d love to write more on it but my cold-addled head struggled enough with what I have written.

    • It really is Angharad. It was really hard choosing quotes because the book is full of them. It’s worth adding to your list. Not all Pulitzer prizewinners are great, but many are worth reading.

  4. Thanks for this informative post introducing me to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer winning book, WG. One point just came to mind and I’m afraid I have to go off topic a bit. This is not about the Vietnam War but language learning. Seems like Nguyen has the ‘advantage’ of arriving in the U.S. at age 4, therefore can discard his ‘mother tongue’ readily as he grows up and learns just English and be an expert in it. But for those arriving at an older age, say, as a teenager or later, English will always remain ‘a second language’, a stigma. In recent years, this view has been reversed. The immigrant’s home language is not seen as a hindrance but an enhancement offering a rich scaffold and reference point for a child’s language learning and cultural appreciation as well as the formation of a more multi-dimensional world view. Speaking a language other than the dominant English here in multicultural Canada is a privilege and advantage now, unlike decades ago when I arrived here as a teenaged immigrant, desperately shedding the veneer of ‘foreignness’. Just a thought that came to mind as I read your post.

    • Thanks Arti. A perfectly fine tangent. Yes, that’s much as it is here too, I think.

      Language is (now at least) seen as a critical, essential, part of culture and therefore identity. It’s why indigenous people here are trying to maintain and in some cases revive their languages.

  5. I’m so glad you took on this book and I congratulate you in a masterful review. You reminded me of how ruefully funny this book was and of how I often guffawed. I’m interested in getting his next book—-The Refugees—and maybe getting some insight into the experiences of the in-laws here.

    • It was just a matter of time Carolyn as I knew I wanted to read it, so thanks again for it. Yes, I laughed a lot too, albeit often ruefully. I imagine his take on refugees will be provocative too!

  6. I’m glad we’re starting to see the Vietnam War from the point(s) of view of the people whose country we trashed. Even the anti-war fiction of Aust and the US concentrates on the harm done to (‘our’) ordinary soldiers which might be true but is hardly the point when generations of Vietnamese peasants were bombed and saw their daughters turn to prostitution to survive.

    • Yes, exactly Bill, which as you say might be true but isn’t where our main (or only) focus should be.

      It reminds me too though, that it’s in democracies that you are able to write, publish and read such a book that pretty mercilessly satirises the hand that feeds it (as it were). Our democracies are far from perfect but all the political satire I’m seeing at present reminds me of why I’m glad I live in one and why we need to keep these freedoms.

  7. Thanks for the review – jogged my memory – I’d purchased the book over a year ago and it had somehow gone to to the bottom of my Kindle app TBR pile. I’ve dragged it up to the top and along with a couple of other books the reading of which is being completed – I have got about a fifth of the way into The Sympathizer!

      • WG: I gave The Sympathizer serious consideration upon finishing – and sent a fairly comprehensive but personal CV kind of response to the author – teasing out as many of the connective points as I could. One of the aspects I did point out was that the narrator somewhat put me in mind of Oskar in Die Blechtrommel – The Tin Drum – by Günter GRASS – 1959. (A family connection actor in Austria had a role in the Volker SCHLÖNDORFF directed movie of 1979.) This reference drew a remarkable comment from the author who had read the novel just prior to writing the book – suggesting it had gone – at least in some part – towards influencing the way in which he drew the protagonist. I found Viet-Thanh NGUYEN’s novel one of the most remarkable on what comes out of war and what comes out of those locals made complicit in the interference of strong foreign powers – when the foreigners pull out – and draw with them some of the nationals who have been compromised by their apparent co-operation with the “enemy”. It’s no wonder that Malcolm FRASER saw our national responsibility to the refugees and boat people from Viet-nam – and so sad that more recent political pragmatism – and racist bigotry it has to said – has turned its uglier face against asylum-seekers/refugees – and boat people – out of other lands in the Middle East where we have engaged in US arm-twisted military operations. Writers like Viet-Thanh NGUYEN hold up the Mirror to our national ethical transgressions.

        • How wonderful to have had that response from the author, Jim. Thanks so much for sharing it. And I like your description of what Nguyen has done regarding locals & foreign powers involved in wars. Your point regarding our ethical behaviour is well made.

  8. Great review! I’ve been reading a number of Vietnamese-American authors lately and this sounds really good. Sadly, I have yet to come across something by a woman. You wouldn’t happen to know of one would you?

      • OMG how did I miss the author is a woman? Can I blame the fact that a book I am currently reading has a character in it named Hoa who is a boy? And so I saw Hoa and proceeded to completely blank out that in this case Hoa is female. Doh! I really do have to read this book then!

  9. I loved this book too and was happy to relive it a bit through your thoughtful review. You captured so much of the book beautifully. He is an amazing writer and I highly recommend The Refugees as well.

  10. What a marvellous opening sentence to the novel. And I love your description of the language being “sly and wry”. I did already want to read this book, but I had the feeling it would be a lot of work (not a bad thing, of course, just something to be measured amongst a number of challenging reads) and now I am seeing that there is some light in there too – that makes it seem even more enticing!

  11. This was a fascinating and insightful exploration into the paradoxes existing between east and west. What struck me was how strong was the bond between the lead character and his childhood blood brothers and how it played out throughout the course of the novel. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in understanding the price of conflict.

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