Title: The Sympathizer
Author: Viet Thanh Nguyen
Genre: Literary, Historical Fiction
As a lover of stories, I think it’s always surreal but fascinating to meet an author of a book you like and it was no different with Mr. Nguyen. I got to hear him speak at a Critical Refugees panel a few months ago before I had even read this book, although I had heard of it. He served as a moderator for this panel and I was struck by his reflective, introspective questions. I suppose I was also fascinated because he was a Vietnamese immigrant who is an associate professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at USC, usually Vietnamese people pick careers in math and science in my experience.
From what I recall, he was very interested in asking the implications of being a refugee. The feeling of not belonging to either ideology. That contradiction is explored in our main character. He is a communist spy, half Viet and half French, who moves to the United States after the fall of Saigon and spends time with the General and his servicemen in order to send back information to his communist commander back in Vietnam.
I really liked reading about post-Vietnam war America and the attitude towards Americans for withdrawing from the war when the South still needed them. It was never more clear to me how much loathing the Americans instilled from the Vietnamese. He talks about Vietnam’s role in world history as cursed and bastardized, passed from Indochina to the French to the US and then to civil war. It parallels our own main character’s role in the book. Both are never really allowed to form their own identity. So the political atmosphere of the book really interested me. What also interested me was theme of being the Sympathizer. Our narrator is constantly torn between two sides, between his fealty between his two friends, between his half heritage, between the North and the South. Even as he is feeding information about the revolution’s side to the communists, he secretly feels sympathy for the Left. Even as he kills revolutionaries so he won’t be discovered, their deaths still haunt him forever. Seeing that dynamic made me see the merits of both sides, but also the failings and as you go on through the book, that juxtaposition can also be found with the bigger themes of the book like the relationship between America and Vietnam.
Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others?
His character is a double-edged sword however because he sympathizes with both sides so in the end, I don’t know what his stance actually is, what he actually believes in although I did see more leaning toward the Left as most Viet people living here would lean towards. But I suppose maybe that’s the point.
Most of the time is spent in our narrator’s head so there is little room for other characters to develop and shine but they were colorful enough and served their purpose enough so that the book didn’t feel like it was missing something.
The writing was a little too quippy at times but I didn’t mind it. It had splashes of Kurt Vonnegut with somewhat dream-like sequences and hints of 1984 by George Orwell in it. I really like some of his turn of phrases where he turns sentiments you already know and turns it into something quotable.
“To live was to be haunted by the inevitability of one’s own decay, and to be dead was to be haunted by the memory of living.”
In the end, this book is really an ode to the Vietamese. And I think Nguyen captures the very essence, the “Vietnamese-ness” of Vietnamese immigrants which is probably not that helpful in describing this book but it’s true. It’s always in touch with the subtle similarites but also alienating differences between the two like the cultural barriers between immigrants and Americans, the inherent conservativeness versus the so-called looser ways of Americans. To see this brought up in a well-written style and to see this book receive the Pulitzer Prize gives me a lot of hope for more representation.