Toronto Star: Review of The Sympathizer

James Grainger of the Toronto Star reviews Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel, The Sympathizer.

The unnamed narrator of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s astounding debut novel, The Sympathizer, will be compared to the morally exhausted spies, intelligence officers and double agents of Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and John le Carré. Originally drawn to professional espionage by a desire to put idealism into action, these hollowed-out anti-heroes discover, too late, that their ideals are merely fuel for the machinations of power-hungry elites.

Nguyen’s narrator is the product of a liaison between a French Catholic priest and a teenage mother in rural Vietnam while the country is still a French colony. When the Americans take over the role of colonial oppressors, the narrator, already an agent for the Viet Cong, goes deep under cover as the personal aide to The General, the head of the South Vietnamese National Police, including its brutal secret police.

The action opens as Saigon, the last stronghold of the South, falls to the Viet Cong. The narrator has arranged passage for the General and his family and a few officers on one of the last American planes out of Vietnam, and after a harrowing escape the once-feared remnants of the secret police end up at a refugee camp in Guam.

The CIA arrange passage for the General and his followers to California, where the narrator continues to spy on his countrymen, reporting back to his handler and childhood friend Man through coded letters. The narrator dutifully reports on The General’s reduced circumstances as the owner of a liquor store and his attempts to raise a small army of expats to liberate Vietnam from the communists.

The Sympathizer takes the form of an extended written confession to a shadowy Commandant as he bides his time in a prison cell in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The story of how the narrator goes from trusted spy to prisoner of the state comprises the bulk of the novel, until its surreal, disturbing, closing chapters.

Where Nguyen parts company from such restrained ironists as Greene and Le Carré is in tone, which owes more to the ribald, scorching black comedy of Louis Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night than The Quiet American or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Having seen the worst of humanity in his quest for revolutionary purity, the narrator wants his interrogator to feel his rage, disappointment and overwhelming guilt. His revenge on his superiors is to discredit the apparatus of revolution and power politics with unrestrained invective, caricature and grotesque humour.

The Sympathizer is a tremendously funny novel, stripped bare of the liberal humanist pieties of so many novels of immigration, exile and foreign conflict. The narrator saves his most verbally violent salvos for the pretensions of American imperialists, but he is also unsparing of his own people’s foibles.

The novel’s comic set piece takes readers to the Philippines, where the narrator has been hired by an American movie director to round up hundreds of Vietnamese extras from a refugee camp and teach them how to die authentically in the film’s war scenes. The imaginary film is a not-so-subtle parody of Apocalypse Now and its director, referred to as The Auteur, a caricature of Francis Ford Coppola.

In this and other equally illuminating scenes, Nguyen does nothing less than turn the familiar Western narratives of the Vietnam War on their heads, revealing their self-serving patriotism and unexamined assumptions about colonialism, military intervention and the divides between European/North American and Asian culture.

The Sympathizer is that rare novel that will make you see the world just a little bit differently — and laugh in horror while doing so.


James Grainger’s novel Harmless will be published in May 2015.

Category: Reviews


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