The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen features a captivating, duplicitious narrator who's a communist sleeper agent living in America after the Vietnam War. Nominated for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel.
While it’s likely that the Vietnam War spawned many bookshelves full of novels written by Vietnamese authors, an awfully small number of these are in English. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer is one of these, a mordant, discursive recounting of the South Vietnamese exile experience from the fall of Saigon to the early Reagan years.
The unnamed narrator – The Captain – is a man of two faces and two minds, caught between two worlds. Born in the North to a French priest and a Viet teenager, he goes to college in America, then returns to his homeland to support the North in the endless Vietnamese civil war. He becomes an aide to The General, the acting head of the South’s secret police, helping arrest and torture alleged communist spies while he sends secrets to the real communist spies he works for. When Saigon goes down for the count, The Captain’s handler orders him to go to America to keep tabs on The General and his entourage.
If you think the war is over at this point in the story, you’d be wrong. The Vietnamese diaspora goes about recreating the snakepit of Saigon in Los Angeles, driven by the same feuds and rivalries. The General begins weaving his political and financial web in his new home, even building his own small army in a delusional attempt to take back South Vietnam. The Captain resumes his subterranean ways, helping The General eliminate “subversive” elements while reporting on his actions to his spymaster in Hanoi.
The Captain’s story comes in the form of a confession written to his superiors. It’s not a just-the-facts, police-procedural confession – the book’s trajectory is more a corkscrew than an icepick, and not because of a twisty plot. The first-person narrative brings the immediacy inherent in that form, but it also indulges the narrator’s bad habit of leaving no side road unexplored. Just as a plotline gets going, The Captain will launch a lengthy digression into his mother’s cooking or the missionary school he attended as a child. Momentum isn’t prized here.
Still, the author’s take on the war and the East-West divide is refreshing for being so often absent in this context. As Saigon is disintegrating, The General dispatches The Captain to bribe a guard at the airport to let The General’s convoy through. Though resentful, the guard “did what I gambled every honorable man forced to take a bribe would do. He let us pass…if the southern army comprised only men like him, it would have won.” He portrays the South as every bit as corrupt and murderous as the North, but while the North believes in something and pulls together, the South’s factions would rather fight each other for advantage instead of uniting against a common foe (a preference that continues in America). He or his fellow refugees parse the American overuse of the word “super,” the male Westerner’s almost fetishistic worship of the ao dai (especially on very young Vietnamese women), the appropriate level of English fluency for an Asian to be considered employable but not a threat or a freak, and how certain Western scholars of Asia develop a Madame Butterfly complex.
One of the more common descriptions you’ll find of this book is “black comedy,” and there is some of that here. One of the story’s most consistently telling, as well as entertaining, sequences details The Captain’s stab at being a technical advisor for a very thinly-disguised version of Apocalypse Now. The American penchant for gigantism, the “Auteur’s” (read “Coppola’s”) insistence that his book research is more accurate than The Captain’s true-life experiences, the exclusion of the Vietnamese from any meaningful role in a retelling of their own war, and the general weirdness of Hollywood all combine to resemble that LSD freakout in the real Apocalypse Now.
If only the entire book could have been so engaging.
Ultimately, though, the title character proves too slippery to get a grip on. Yes, he’s a “sympathizer” in the negative sense of being in league with the enemy, but he’s also a “sympathizer” in that he can internalize all points of view – South or North, city or country, male or female, Vietnamese or American. This is no doubt a valuable skill for someone leading a double or triple life; however, it also leaves him seeming to have no firm convictions. Despite frequent detours into The Captain’s background and worldview, readers may come out knowing as little about the character’s core than they did at the beginning.
In a way, The Sympathizer is a victim of its own back-cover copy. The promised “gripping spy novel” never really surfaces, and the “moving love story” is mostly metaphorical. If we use the stereotypical description of a literary novel (five hundred pages inside the head of someone who accomplishes nothing), we could call The Sympathizer a short (only 384 pages) literary spy novel, with all that implies. That clearly works for a number of people; it won a passel of rave reviews and an Edgar nomination for Best First Novel. Whether it works for you may depend on your reaction to that stereotypical definition of “literary.”
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Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. There are sympathizers of both varieties in his international thriller Doha 12 and his near-future thriller South. His Facebook author page features spies, shipwrecks, archaeology and art crime.