The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Published by Grove Press on April 12th, 2016
Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
“Nothing is ever so expensive as what is offered for free.”
I’ve seen this book in every bookstore. I always think to myself, “Right, I’ll remember to borrow it from the library later.” Well, I finally did it. It only took five years.
The Sympathizer follows a man—we never learn his name—who is a communist double agent embedded with the South Vietnamese Army and their American allies. After he’s air-lifted out of the country during the fall of Saigon, he winds up in California spying on his fellow refugees and sending reports written in invisible ink to his handler back in Vietnam.
The story is written as the narrator’s confession, which he’s forced to write while held in a North Vietnamese reeducation camp. Much to the dismay of the camp’s commandant, this confession shows the narrator’s true feelings—he’s not a true believer in their cause. Instead, he “sympathizes” with people on both sides of the conflict.
I went into this novel knowing absolutely nothing about the story or even the true history behind it.
I’ll always be the first to admit when I don’t know something. We never learned about the Vietnam War in school. And after reading this, I’m compelled to do my own research and make up for my own lack of education there.
Right off the bat, this book won’t be for everyone. It’s incredibly dense. I even pinpointed when I knew readers would give up on this book. Listen, it’s not easy to read and the style of writing won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. There’s next to no dialogue. It’s reserved for near the end and it’s written in the form of a script.
But am I glad I powered through it? Yes. Without a doubt, Nguyen has written a very important story. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the gut wrenching torture scenes towards the end of the novel.
I found this book to be very confusing. I found it hard to follow, which I’m not sure was helpful to understanding the chaos of the war and the evacuation scene. But maybe it was done on purpose to illustrate the messiness of war.
Having said that, Nguyen writes beautiful sentences. There are so many phrases that I wish I could burn into my memory.
This book does a great job at providing a framework of how you can view the Vietnam War. You can come to realize that there’s widespread blaming and forms of forgiveness on both sides. There truly wasn’t a right side to be on, and the Vietnamese became pawns in a bigger struggle:
Our country itself was cursed, bastardized, partitioned into north and south, and if it could be said of us that we chose division and death in our uncivil war, that was also only partially true. We had not chosen to be debased by the French, to be divided by them into an unholy trinity of north, center, and south, and to be turned over to the great powers of capitalism and communism for a further bisection, then given roles as the clashing armies of a Cold War chess match played in air-conditioned rooms by white men wearing suits and lies.
If you do make it to the end of the novel, I highly recommend that you read the essay and the interview. It was enlightening and very relevant given the issues at hand today. And I think I took away more from the novel because of the two additional pieces.
The tendency to separate war stories from immigrant stories means that most Americans don’t understand how many of the immigrants and refugees in the United States have fled from wars – many of which this country has had a hand in
And what he does so elegantly in the novel as well, he explains that the blame isn’t solely on the Americans. It’s also on the Vietnamese.
The Vietnamese are at least partially responsible for what they did to themselves. I didn’t want to put the blame squarely on the Americans or the French, although that blame is there. I wanted this to be very specifically a moment of Vietnamese-on-Vietnamese confrontation and responsibility because, again, this is in part how we claim our subjectivity: we aren’t just victims but victimizers as well. This is a part of our history that we all find very hard to confront.
I wish I read the two additional pieces of content before I read the novel. I think it adds a lot of context for someone whose knowledge is already so limited of the Vietnam War.
So why the three bubble tea rating? Objectively, I could see how this book is a moving story about love and friendship, while also being a gripping spy novel. But was I moved by the Captain? No. Was I emotionally invested in his story? No. Did I feel for the Vietnamese people in this novel given the circumstances? Yes. But that had nothing to do with story itself. It had more to do with the context and the history.
I think it’s an important piece of work that deserves to be read, but I definitely won’t be picking this up again. But I will be looking for other work about the Vietnam War. Hit me up with recommendations, please!