Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

NY Times Review: ‘The Sympathizer,’ a Novel About a Soldier, Spy and Film Consultant

The New York Times first reviewed The Sympathizer in April, when it came out. Now the NYT reviews the book again–a surprise, given that the book came out five months ago, but a good surprise. This review by Sarah Lyall was originally published online and in print on The New York Times on August 28, 2015.

28BOOKNGUYEN-blog427There’s a great comic interlude in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel “The Sympathizer” when the unnamed narrator, a Vietnamese Army captain exiled in Los Angeles, critiques the screenplay of a gung-ho Hollywood movie about America’s heroism in the Vietnam War.

By this time, a lot of things have already happened. Saigon has fallen. Chaos has closed in. The captain has secured the bloody, terrifying extraction of his boss, a pro-American general, on one of the last flights out (were there any other kind of flights in Saigon in 1975?). Working as an aide and sometime hit man for the general, now a California liquor-store owner, the captain applies himself to his real job: spying on the general, and other members of the Vietnamese diaspora, for the Communists who seized power back home.

In America, he’s in demand for his sophistication and fluent English. A bloviating Hollywood director summons him to discuss the script for “The Hamlet,” a movie in which a clichéd bunch of mostly doomed Green Berets saves, if that is the right word, a Vietnamese village from the Vietcong. The scene lays bare many of the distressing, absurd, tangled indignities and contradictions that the captain — half-French, half-Vietnamese, educated at an American college, author of a senior thesis on symbols in Graham Greene — contends with as he lives so many lives at once.

He points out that none of the movie’s Vietnamese characters have intelligible speaking parts. “Do you not think it would be a little more believable,” he tells the director, “for a movie set in a certain country for the people in that country to have something to say, instead of having your screenplay direct, as it does now, ‘Cut to villagers speaking in their own language’?”

The great achievement of “The Sympathizer” is that it gives the Vietnamese a voice and demands that we pay attention. Until now, it’s been largely a one-sided conversation — or at least that’s how it seems in American popular culture. As the narrator explains, “this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors,” and so it is that we’ve heard about the Vietnam War mostly from the point of view of American soldiers, American politicians and American journalists. We’ve never had a story quite like this one before.

Mr. Nguyen, who teaches English and American studies at the University of Southern California, was born in Vietnam but raised in the United States. He is the author of an academic book, “Race and Resistance.” How exciting that he also writes fiction, because he has a great deal to say and a knowing, playful, deeply intelligent voice. His novel is a spy thriller, a philosophical exploration, a coming-of-age tale, the story of what it’s like to be an immigrant, to be part-Asian, to be the illegitimate child of a forbidden liaison. It’s about being forced to hide yourself under so many layers that you’re not sure who you are.

The story is framed as a confession addressed to a figure called the Commandant, who, it gradually becomes clear, is keeping the captain prisoner in some unknown location. (We won’t learn where or why until the book’s shattering conclusion.) But the captain’s account is less an appeal for absolution than an attempt to explain what he did and the reasons behind it. It also allows him to be, as he says, an anthropologist of Vietnamese and American culture.

The story flits around, intermingling past and present, scenes from childhood with scenes from pre-fall Saigon with scenes from contemporary America, conversations spilling together, so it’s necessary to read carefully to orient yourself. The tone is set in the very first sentence. “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces,” the narrator confesses. “I am also a man of two minds.” That’s a point Mr. Nguyen will return to over and over again — the blessing and the curse of finding subtlety where others see certainty.

cover front

As children, the narrator and two other boys, Bon and Man, swore blood brotherhood and have remained fierce friends. Bon is pro-American, a veteran of the C.I.A.-sponsored Phoenix program of assassination; he leaves Saigon with the narrator on that plane. Man is a Communist and the narrator’s handler; he stays behind. Once in Los Angeles, the narrator takes a job with his former university professor and begins a sensual affair with an older Japanese-American woman. Students of Graham Greene, whose spare, precise writing contrasts with Mr. Nguyen’s exuberant, expansive and sometimes repetitious style, will recognize in her one of Mr. Nguyen’s many sly ripostes to and upendings of “The Quiet American,” the subject of the narrator’s thesis. While the love interest in that book is an annoyingly passive cipher, the narrator’s girlfriend is a free-love feminist with trenchant views on Asian stereotyping.

The captain travels to the Philippines as “The Hamlet” is filmed, a section clearly based on the filming of “Apocalypse Now.” He helps wrangle Vietnamese refugees as extras for parts like Desperate Villager, Dead Girl, Lame Boy, Corrupt Officer, Gentle Whore and Crazy Guy in Whorehouse. The writing is as good as ever, though the episode jars a bit, interrupting the flow of the narrative. But when the story picks up again, you cannot look away.

There are so many passages to admire. Mr. Nguyen is a master of the telling ironic phrase and the biting detail, and the book pulses with “Catch-22”-style absurdities. “It was a smashingly successful cease-fire, for in the last two years only 150,000 soldiers had died,” the narrator says. “Imagine how many would have died without a truce!” And, as an example of how he undercuts horror with humor and then swings it back around, here he is, having described his first adolescent semi-non-solo sexual experience, with a dead cephalopod he finds in the kitchen. “Some will undoubtedly find this episode obscene,” he writes. “Not I! Massacre is obscene. Torture is obscene. Three million dead is obscene. Masturbation, even with an admittedly nonconsensual squid? Not so much.”

Toward the end of the book, we find out where the narrator has been imprisoned, who the shadowy Commandant is, and why everyone is afraid of an even shadowier character known as the Commissar. The harrowing interrogation that follows forces the captain to examine every facet of his behavior — the killings he witnessed, the killings he caused — and to consider his possible complicity in a particularly grisly incident from his past.

It takes him to the very edge, and us along with him. (For the last few pages he will refer to himself as “we,” the emotional consequence, he says, of having two minds.) He is released from detention and left to ponder what lessons, if any, have been learned from one of the sorrier episodes in Vietnamese and American 20th-century history. “Revolutionaries can never be innocent,” his friend Man has warned him. Can anyone?


More Reviews