Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Dallas News Fiction Review: ‘The Sympathizer’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen

May-Lee Chai of Dallas News reviews Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s accomplished and confident first novel explores the conflicted world of a Communist spy embedded first in Saigon before the fall of the American-backed government and then in Los Angeles within the South Vietnamese community in exile. Tasked with reporting on the plans of a character called the General, the unnamed spy finds himself conflicted by questions of morality, nationality, loyalty and even love as he grows fonder of the very people he is supposed to be undermining.

In writing secret reports back to his contact in Vietnam, the spy affords the reader with a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the Vietnamese emigrés, as once wealthy and powerful people must struggle to make a living and make sense of their new lives.

Nguyen’s satirical but nuanced portrayal of the exiles is one of the book’s many pleasures. The General becomes a liquor store owner, a loyal aide a security guard. The spy himself is hired as an office assistant to a pompous Anglo-American professor of Oriental studies, a position that allows him to remark on the ironic ignorance and arrogance of his boss. And the General’s once-pampered wife runs a pho restaurant.

“She had been cooking and the house smelled of sentiment, a rich aroma of beef broth and star anise I can only describe as the bouquet of love and tenderness, all the more striking because Madame had never cooked before coming to this country,” the spy observes.

When the General suspects the presence of a Communist spy in their midst, he turns to none other than the spy himself to ferret out the man. The spy chooses an innocuous, inept “crapulent major” as his patsy in order to protect his own identity, and is horrified when the General then orders him to assassinate the man.

Despite his misgivings, the spy does as he is told.

To escape suspicions and his own conscience, the spy accepts a job as a consultant on an American movie director’s new epic about the Vietnam War. In an episode meant to recall Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, the spy joins the Hollywood film crew in the Philippines, where he instructs Vietnamese from a local refugee camp how to die convincingly for the cameras as they’re gunned down by the movie’s white American heroes.

Although the spy finds the depiction of Vietnamese in the film demeaning, he convinces himself that his work is, in fact, patriotic: “I was not only a technical consultant on an artistic project, but an infiltrator into a work of propaganda.”

However, the spy fails to find a way to humanize the Vietnamese extras in the movie and is himself injured by one of the director’s many explosions.

“I found that an airplane ticket had been reserved for my instant departure from the Philippines, and I spent the entire trip brooding over the problem of representation,” the spy reports after his injury. “Not to own the means of production can lead to premature death, but not to own the means of representation is also a kind of death.”

As the political turmoil and double-crosses accumulate both in Vietnam and America, the spy never quite succeeds in reconciling his love of country and people with the messiness of his circumstances as a mole, but Nguyen’s sharp observations guarantee that the novel succeeds where the spy does not: in humanizing a community that has been demonized in the past.

Darkly comic and deeply intelligent, The Sympathizer is at its heart a novel about the representation of Vietnam and Vietnamese in America, and how their use as symbols ignores the pain of loss from colonization, war and exile. It is a book that insists we think deeply about the long-term meaning of not only the American war in Vietnam but also the images and re-creations of the war that continue into the present, including in this novel.

May-lee Chai’s latest novel is Tiger Girl. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.


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