Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Vietnam War’s Double-Agent Tale Offers Valuable New Perspective

John Kendle from Winnipeg Free Press reviews The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel.

The Vietnam War has been a recurrent subject and theme in American popular culture since the 1970s. Movies, memoirs, novels, academic histories — all have examined and re-examined the war’s effect on just about every aspect of American life. Without fail, though, the primary voices in the most popular of these stories have been American.

In this context, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer is a welcome and necessary book. Arriving 40 years after the fall of Saigon in 1975, it’s a Vietnam War novel from the point of view of a Vietnamese narrator, written by a Vietnamese-born American. Nguyen is an associate professor of English and American studies at the University of Southern California who, by simple virtue of his background and upbringing, offers fresh insight in an inventive tale that is equal parts historical spy thriller and darkly comic novel of ideas.

The Sympathizer begins in the days just before the fall of Saigon. The narrator is a police captain deployed as official secretary and fixer to the general in charge of the South Vietnamese secret police. As he reveals in the book’s first line, the captain is also a communist agent, reporting to a Viet Cong controller on all the activities of the general and his comrades: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.”

With that Nguyen is off, weaving his way through the disorganized bedlam of escape from Saigon, on to a refugee centre on Guam and ultimately to the suburbs of Los Angeles, where the captain, the general, the general’s officers and their families must make new lives.

It is in this new world that most of The Sympathizer’s action takes place, and it is from this vantage point that Nguyen makes his boldest points about how the war in Vietnam resonated long after it was over — not just for Americans at home, but also for the millions of the wandering Vietnamese diaspora and the millions of Vietnamese trapped in their homeland.

In these passages, Nguyen gently mocks the rather ludicrous reality of generals owning liquor stores, majors working as gas jockeys and snipers mopping floors. He shows how it is utterly natural for expatriate communities to cling together, united in their otherworldliness and their longing for home. All the while, the captain diligently reports on the general’s efforts to organize and raise funds for a counter-revolutionary militia. In a mid-book deviation, he spends seven months in the Philippines working on a Hollywood movie about the war, trying to “humanize” the Vietnamese characters.

At its heart, The Sympathizer is a study in what it means to belong — about asking “where is home?”

In a literary sense, the captain’s anonymity means he is everyone and no one all at once, as does the duplicitous nature of the life he leads. Via reminiscences sprinkled throughout a text that is ultimately revealed to be a written “confession,” he explains he has never quite fit in anywhere. As the bastard son of a French priest and a young Vietnamese, he’s bullied at school for not being wholly Vietnamese. When he courts the general’s daughter, he’s told he’s an unacceptable suitor. When living in California, he’s either an invisible Asian expected to become part of melting-pot America or he’s viewed as an Oriental curiosity.

And all the while he’s a spy, bound to the communist idealism of his youth. Yet even the captain’s ideological faith, which sustains him throughout his years in America, withers when he is confronted by the stark, horrifying bleakness of the People’s Republic of Vietnam after being “captured” by the Viet Cong while on a guerilla mission with the general’s men.

His truest self, it turns out, is bound up in his love for his mother, his childhood best friends and, he realizes, to his homeland — even if he can no longer live there.


John Kendle is a Winnipeg writer and the managing editor at Canstar Community News.



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