SF Gate Reviews The Sympathizer

Thomas Chatterton Williams reviews Viet Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer for SF Gate.

The unnamed narrator (he is simply “the captain) in “The Sympathizer,” Viet Thanh Nguyen’s powerful and evocative first novel, leads a divided life in every possible way. The son of a Vietnamese mother and a French priest, he is a spy, he explains, “a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds … able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent [but] I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you — that is a hazard.”

The story, which is related in the form of a confession addressed to an unnamed “commandant,” opens in gripping detail in 1975, just as the United States is airlifting personnel and certain South Vietnamese allies out of Saigon before the communists take charge. The setting is the evacuating villa of a general whose fate, from Vietnam to Los Angeles and back, the narrator’s will be bound to. In America, the general opens a liquor store and later a restaurant, as he and other exiles raise funds and quietly plot their return, and as the narrator continues to infiltrate their conspiracy, entangling himself to an ever greater extent in a morally meaningless web of betrayal and eventually murder.

“Remorse,” the captain confesses, “was ringing me up a few times a day, tenacious as a debt collector.” The general finally organizes his army and, with American backing, returns on a doomed mission to Vietnam. The captain, who has been keeping his Viet Cong superiors abreast of the scheme, nonetheless joins him, attempting to salvage what he can.

Category: Reviews


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