Kit Gillett reviews The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel. Originally published by South China Morning Post.
As the North Vietnamese forces rapidly approach Saigon in the dying days of the Vietnam war, loyalists to the southern regime start to panic, as do others fearing what will happen next. Tens of thousands try to board planes out of the country or gather desperately outside the US embassy as the last Americans are airlifted to safety along with those who have money and the right connections.
For the unnamed central character of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel, it is a heady time of fear and excitement, and one that challenges his two roles: as an aide to a senior South Vietnamese general and as a double agent for the Vietcong. Bullets fly and rumours whirl as he bribes and threatens to get the general and his family – plus himself and dozens of other military officers – out of Vietnam: the general to continue the fight from afar, the double agent to secretly monitor and report back to the communists the actions of the vanquished enemy.
The early pacing of the novel is intense, which adds to the overall sense of imbalance, made doubly so by the fact that the story is written as a confession, with the spy clearly held captive by some unknown foe. Just who has uncovered his many dark secrets, and what will his ultimate fate be?
Those last days of the Vietnam war were dark and panic-filled for those left in Saigon, acutely aware of the foe on the horizon. Nguyen does an excellent job of starting the story in those claustrophobic weeks of uncertainty and fear in a city on the brink of “liberation”.
As the novel progresses, the drama moves to the United States, where the double agent watches the struggles of the newly arrived Vietnamese – who mostly feel betrayed and abandoned by their American allies – while assisting the general as he goes about recruiting a ragtag paramilitary force to try to recapture Vietnam. The spy must weigh his loyalties and his desire to return home with his mission and his place in the world.
The Sympathizer is that rare breed of books: a post-Vietnam war novel set among the Vietnamese losers of the war. The main character is a flawed man, struggling with his allegiance, his mixed parentage – he’s the son of a French priest and a Vietnamese maid – and his American education, all of which mark him as different and never truly accepted by those around him.
The other characters – the general, his Vietcong handler, his blood brothers, the women he has affairs with – are straightforward in their outlook and goals, but combined they help to paint a bleak world of uncertainty and of striving for a place in a new society. In the novel there are no good guys or bad guys, merely those who cause the least damage.
The Sympathizer shows the worst sides of humanity in painful detail, from casual racism and disregard for others, to jealousy and murder set against the backdrop of a bloody war. When fears surface that there is a double agent in their midst, the spy ruthlessly places suspicion on another officer, and then is instrumental in what happens thereafter. Yet at the same time, he is desperate to be accepted and have his actions understood.
Published to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon in 1975, The Sympathizer is a timely reminder of the brutality and deceptions of war and the way it affects all around it, written with rich descriptions and, at times, heart-stopping intensity.
The novel can’t sustain the intensity of the beginning, and when the pace drops, the story suffers. Yet overall this gripping debut captures a period of the Vietnam war that has been largely overlooked.