‘The Sympathizer’: Vietnamese Spy Encounters America

Tony Dushane interviews author Viet Thanh Nguyen for SF Gate.

“The Sympathizer” recounts life after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Written by Viet Thanh Nguyen, the novel is a confession written by an unnamed narrator who comes to America as a sleeper agent for the communists after the war.

In the U.S., the narrator, referred to as Captain, delves into Western culture while keeping close to his general and other compatriots on the American side of the Vietnam War. The novel covers politics and history, as well as the identity issues of the narrator.

In Hollywood, he gets the opportunity to consult on a film about the Vietnam War, which mirrors the real-life filmmaking process of “Apocalypse Now.” This is where dark humor comes into play, as Nguyen takes the reader on a wild ride of Los Angeles and reflects on the realism of war.

“I think people will take it as an ‘Apocalypse Now’ satire, and it is, but I was also thinking of many other Vietnam movies I had seen as well, and many of those have filtered in,” Nguyen says. “So I refract that history of the Vietnam War through this movie to give you a sense of how awful the war was, but also how absurd it was as well, since it’s being replayed for you as entertainment.”

Although Nguyen’s subject matter is heavy, there is also a sense of comedy and absurdity in the narrative.

“The American war in Vietnam, as well as American filmmaking, share something in common,” says Nguyen, who lives in Los Angeles. “It’s sort of a narcissistic obsession with America itself, so the American military thought it could do no wrong, and Hollywood itself thinks that the stories that it makes are the most important stories in the world. And for me, these two actually are related — these Vietnam movies that were being made by Hollywood was a way for America to make sure that even though it had lost the war in fact, it would continue to win the war in fiction, because it can make the rest of the world continue to look again at Vietnam through American eyes.”

Nguyen’s family fled Vietnam in 1975, when he was 4 years old. Growing up in the United States, he was obsessed with films about Vietnam.

“This tragedy of the war is not defined as a tragedy between right versus wrong, but between right versus right, and that’s what makes it such a difficult situation. If it was right versus wrong, it would be easy to identify what we need to do, but obviously the most difficult moments are actually when we are confronted with others who believe they’re doing the right thing as well.”

Tony DuShane is a freelance writer and author of “Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk.”


Category: Interviews


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