Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel, The Sympathizer, is reviewed by Viviane Crystal of the Historical Novel Society.
1968: Saigon falls to the enemy, and thousands of Vietnamese and Americans flock to escape as the military forces of Ho Chi Minh enter South Vietnam. Those fleeing are truly mourning but are fiercely proud of their country. Their confusion and fear parallel the chaotic conditions in which our narrator calmly picks and chooses who will leave and who must be strong as they are chosen to remain. Our unnamed narrator, who will escape without harm, is actually a Communist Party member and spy. This novel focuses on what he calls his confession, a detailed report of the violent days in which planes about to take off are shot down by the enemy – whether that be angry people left behind or Northern soldiers using military might to herald their victory.
Even though this captain was previously educated in the United States, his account of his arrival in Los Angeles and the plight of these Vietnamese exiles can best be summarized in his own words: “The American Dream, the culture of Hollywood, the practices of American democracy, and so on, can altogether make America a disorienting place for those like us who hail from the Orient.” Forced to take menial jobs, the exiles band together, creating united but separate communities. Our narrator confesses his own confusion and division, his story punctuated only by falling in love. Here we have the account of a divided soul, a man with Communist beliefs finding himself falling in love with a woman and a free democratic land. Strikingly moving on every page, this masterful, detailed work of historical fiction is recommended reading for those who truly want to understand the aftermath of the turbulent Vietnam War.