Shaun Mullen of The Moderate Voice reviews Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel, The Sympathizer.
The analogy is imperfect, but will suffice: The Sympathizer, the remarkable debut novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen, is a terrific bookend to Fire In the Lake, the Frances FitzGerald classic. While one book is fiction and the other nonfiction, both tell the story of the Vietnam War, its aftermath and legacy from a Vietnamese point of view. And both, in their genre different but similarly powerful ways, are reminders to believers of the cocked-hat notion the U.S. could have “won” the war if the politicians had only butted out, that it was a fool’s errand from start to ignominious finish. And while there was a surplus of fools on all sides, the biggest were the brass at the American Central Command in Saigon.
The Sympathizer opens on the eve of the fall of Saigon in April 1975, an anniversary which incidentally passed this year with nary a peep from an American news media usually fixated on such milestones. The city is in chaos as the trusted Captain, the story’s narrator and as engaging and unlikely a literary hero I have encountered in quite a while, is sipping American post exchange whiskey with the General as they draw up a list of people who will be given visas obtained via a CIA agent from a bribed bureaucrat for passage aboard one of the last flights out of the country.
The Captain, whose real name is never revealed, had been raised by a dirt-poor Vietnamese mother. His father was an absentee French priest who despite his own amorality infuses in him a sense of morality. While the Captain suffers the slings and arrows of being considered a cultural mutt, his mother tells him as they squat in their hovel, “Remember, you’re not half of anything, you’re twice of everything.”
With this advice as his polestar, the Captain goes on to university in the U.S. and becomes fluent in its language and ways before returning to his homeland ostensibly to fight the Communist cause. The General, head of the South Vietnamese National Police, his family, the Captain and other compatriots are evacuated and eventually start a new life in Los Angeles after enduring a succession of refugee camps, but the Captain has a secret: he is a Communist sympathizer and spy who secretly observes and reports on the exile group to Man, a higher-up in the Viet Cong, a childhood friend with whom he deeply bonded as a blood brother after Man defended his honor in a schoolyard brawl started by bullies who taunted him for being a half-caste.
Among the greatest lessons imparted in The Sympathizer, which is part spy novel, love story and geopolitical chess game, is that the Vietnam War was not the American struggle we, our authors and filmmakers have taken it to be. (Same with Fire in the Lake, of course.) It was a war fought by a people forced to choose between East and West. The Americans merely supplied bodies and napalm.
It is having to choose between East and West that drives the Captain’s odyssey. Between aiding or betraying the General, between helping or abandoning Bon, who along with Man was a childhood blood brother, when Bon is determined to return to Southeast Asia on a suicide mission to overthrow the Communist regime.
Although The Sympathizer is overwritten in parts, the powerful and often darkly comic messages underlying the Captain’s narrative, presented in the form of a confession written in a reeducation camp where the torturer becomes the tortured, more than make up for that. Near the end of the book, the Captain — his mind now split like East and West — asks:
We find ourselves facing more questions, universal and timeless ones that never get tired. What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around us apparently do, in nothing?
The Sympathizer is magisterial, and hugely mind expanding in laying bare a core reality of war — that nothing is as it seems — which was so adroitly explored by Tim O’Brien in Going After Cacciato, until now the greatest Vietnam War novel by my lights.
The Sympathizer is sure to become a classic of war fiction alongside Cacciato, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, and Mark Helprin’s A Soldier in the Great War, among others.
Read this marvelous book, but please read it with care. You will be rewarded.