Lien Hoang reviews Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. Originally published by The Sacramento Bee.
Bittersweet was the realization that a stranger would tell my story better than I.
Even though “The Sympathizer” is fiction, the 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning book taps into a reality that resonates with many Vietnamese Americans, including myself. The novel features a communist spy who is spirited away from the Vietnam War and given refuge in California. His mission: to snoop against the losing side, the South Vietnamese.
Author Viet Thanh Nguyen immigrated to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and grew up in San Jose. Many Vietnamese Americans have similar thoughts and experiences, and Nguyen translated them into elegant prose.
On Vietnam’s colonial traumas, the book’s narrator decries the “sawing in half of the country in ’54 by foreign magicians … and the previous century of avuncular French molestation.” On the prosaic, the spy observes a family altar offering “a navel orange frosted with mold, a dusty can of Spam, and a roll of Lifesavers.”
We can see ourselves in the stories articulated by Nguyen, who went to UC Berkeley and teaches at USC. “The Sympathizer” adds substance to our ethnic experience, which is otherwise diffuse and intangible.
But Nguyen, the first Vietnamese American to win the Pulitzer for fiction, hopes to appeal to a broad audience. So your background doesn’t matter as he tells you about squid masturbation, or jokes darkly of winning a ticket to the “tranquil beaches” of Vietnam’s prisons. Your skin color doesn’t matter, as you try to accept his literary conceit – the author imagining himself as a communist agent to depict a California community defined by its anti-communism.
However, it’s important for a white audience to read his book, so that the Vietnam War and its aftermath are no longer just a history written by the losers, as Nguyen says.
“The Sympathizer” spins a peculiar tale of life after war, weaving together the intrigue of espionage, murder and torture. But mostly it is an eloquent record of new Californian immigrants making do and making a new Little Saigon “as delightful, delirious and dysfunctional as the original.”
For Vietnamese who ended up in the Golden State, much of Nguyen’s narrative rings true to what we found here. We are the former colonels, traders and politicians, giving up past glory to work as mechanics, shopkeepers and gardeners in the new world. In adjusting to California, we spent food stamps on frozen meals, sat on scratchy carpets and listened to white people tell us to stay connected to our culture. These scenes played out in the book, as they did in our lives.
“Wherever we found ourselves, we found each other,” Nguyen writes, gathering in basements, backyards and beaches “where we brought our own food and drink in grocery bags rather than buying from the more expensive concessions.” It reminds me of all the summers my extended family trekked to Rancho Seco, a poor man’s lake where we’d bring egg rolls and tangerines, splashing near the shore if we couldn’t swim.
So “The Sympathizer” is refreshing for people tired of hearing about a war through Halberstam and Coppola. It scans the journey of Vietnamese Americans as we coped, cooked and connected to U.S. politicians.
A lot in the book also feels foreign to me. Coming to California from Vietnam later than Nguyen, I didn’t meet so many people emotionally riven by the defeat of war. Sacramento has its share of Vietnamese churches and temples, but unlike the novelist, I wasn’t embedded in the Catholic tradition that haunts and heals.
So varied is the Vietnamese American experience that some of us in the diaspora are still learning about it, too.