A 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,
New York: Grove Press, 2015