Shifting Loyalties, Guilt And Betrayal Inform Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Dazzling Debut Novel About Vietnam, ‘The Sympathizer’

Tricia Springstubb reviews The Sympathizer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Welcome a unique new voice to the literary chorus. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel “The Sympathizer” (Grove Atlantic, 384 pp., $26) is, among other things, a character-driven thriller, a political satire, and a biting historical account of colonization and revolution. It dazzles on all fronts.

Like the book, its protagonist requires more than one identifier: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two minds.” Addressing an invisible Commandant, he begins with the 1975 evacuation of South Vietnam and his own last-minute, hair-raising escape under the protection of an army officer he has served. What the General doesn’t know is that the seemingly loyal Captain is really an operative for the North.

Relocated to California, the refugees are reduced to humiliating lives, where their wives need to work, their children don’t respect them and “they possessed nothing more dangerous than their pride, their halitosis, and their car keys, if they even owned cars.”

The General runs a liquor store, but his real goal is mustering an army of evacuees determined to win back their country. The Captain reports these efforts to his communist comrades, even as he executes the General’s orders, including snuffing out suspected enemies.

A man of two minds, he also suffers from a dual heritage, being the illegitimate, ostracized son of a young Vietnamese woman and a French priest. Even his two childhood friends, men he’d give his life for, have opposing loyalties. Guilt and betrayal are the air he breathes.

His earlier years as a student in the United States make the Captain a sly, cynical observer of this country’s naivete. Never, he says, ask Americans “to imagine they were just like one of us. Spiritual teleportation unsettled most people, who . . . preferred to think that others were just like them.”

When a businessman informs him that “Orientals” don’t value life as much as Westerners, he says: “I was not offended. I had been force-fed so much hate that a little more hardly mattered to my fattened liver.”

Nguyen wields a wicked sense of humor. He riffs on the infamous meat scene in “Portnoy’s Complaint,” substituting a squid, and delivers a devastating satire of “Apocalypse Now.” His one fault may be too much ambition, as he aims to deliver the whole of the Vietnamese experience, pre- and postwar, as well as its impact on the American psyche.

The last quarter of the book follows the Captain and that quixotic army on their return to Vietnam, where they plunge into a tropical forest that “shimmered with the antics of death, the comedian, and life, the straight man, a duo that would never break up.”

In the end, the Captain remains as divided as his country. Unable to choose sides, he sympathizes with all who suffer – which turns out, in his world, to be everyone still breathing.

Springstubb is a Cleveland Heights writer.

Category: Reviews


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