Viet Thanh Nguyen creates through his 2016 Pulitzer winner, The Sympathizer, a vivid imagery of the Vietnam War, and a solid story of divided interests that coexist within the same conscious. A one-fold narrative, imbued with a highly-reflective tone, however, devoid of sentimentalism.
All throughout the novel, I had mixed feelings regarding this reading experience. On the one hand, I enjoyed the socio-political context and the minute details with regards to the 1970’s era, but, on the other hand, I would have loved a much more personal recount of the events. The semi-detached accent and the lack of emotion in key moments, it’s what pushes away the reader, eliminating almost all prospects of empathy. Also, I kept waiting for the prose to get “tremendously funny” as the first cover says, but I could not quite get to it.
The Sympathizer starts off as a rather difficult read, partly because of the digressions in the narrator’s confession, but mostly because the language sounds archaic (or maybe extremely correctly by the British canon), with weird phrasings (“but although I forgot not a word”, “but I was bothered not in the least”, “This was the prayer many a general and politician said”, etc.) and a lot of words of French descent (lycée, coup d’état, sorties, évacuées, cinema-marquee, valise, dames, entendre). But, once you get used to it and you sink into its rhythm, it becomes more eloquent. The slowly-paced, highly-elaborate and descriptive storytelling is annoying at times because the first person narrator is always in total control, gradually revealing his tale. Also, the action lingers at times without any prospects of actually leading somewhere, creating a state of interrupted expectancy.
Viet Thanh Nguyen hides under the mask of a nameless character, simply called the Captain, as the protagonist of this book. A part communist and a part American lover, this man of mixed loyalties carries with him the burden of being a bastard, a métis, an Eurasian or whatever you want to call him. Combined with his French roots and Catholic upbringing, we have a man trapped in between three different cultures, verging on the edge of the Vietnamese society because of his social status, at the height of his appraisal through his American studies and knowledge, while also dealing with his guilty conscious stemming from his religious legacy.
„I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issues from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times, when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you—that is a hazard, I must confess. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear.”
„Innocence and guilt. These are cosmic issues. We are all innocent on one level and guilty on another. Isn’t that what Original Sin is all about?”
As the narrative unfolds, the first major episode is the evacuation from Saigon to Guam, a gripping experience, captured with great detail and probably rendering the most emotional and tense moments of this novel. As our protagonist helps the General (in South Vietnam) to flee from a country in ruins (the Americans had lost the battle), we also get a sense of how their daily lives were immersed in the American culture, but also the extent to which these people have been abused by several generations of rulers:
„We had been forced to adapt to ten years of living in a bubbly economy pumped up purely by American imports; three decades of on-again, off-again war, including the sawing in half of the century in ’54 by foreign magicians and the brief Japanese interregnum of World War II; and the previous century of avuncular French molestation.”
The question of race and ethnicity and the corresponding cultural clash is a recurrent theme throughout the novel and largely discussed in the scenes where the characters reach Los Angeles. The refugees succumb to the American way of life in matter, but in spirit they continue to pine for their old lives, secretly plotting for their returns. Their adjustment consists of setting up small, circuit-closed native Vietnamese communities, where the hierarchy remains the same as in their homeland. For instance, despite his privileged role as the General’s main advisor, our protagonist is still viewed as a bastard and he is not allowed to date the General’s daughter, Lana.
„Refugee, exile, immigrant – whatever species of displaced human we were, we did not simply live in two cultures, as celebrants of the great American melting pot imagined. Displaced people also lived in two time zones, the here and the there, the present and the past, being as we were reluctant time travellers. But while science fiction imagined time travellers as moving forward or backward in time, this timepiece demonstrated a different chronology. The open secret of the clock, naked and for all t see, was that we were only going in circles.”
„The majority of Americans regarded us with ambivalence if not outright distaste, we being living reminders of their stinging defeat. We threatened the sanctity and symmetry of a white and black America whose yin and yang racial politics left no room for any other colour, particularly that of pathetic little yellow-skinned people pickpocketing the American purse.”
The brief love life aspects of this story offer a short glimpse into women’s status, but it also serves as a comparison of opposing views and mentalities. While Lana is an intangible object of desire, the ideal of purity reachable only in his dreams, his affair with Ms. Mori, a professor at the university, is a portrayal of a free union, based on personal pleasures and matters of the intellect. Despite the fact that Lana is the General’s repudiated daughter for becoming a singer, insurmountable social barriers spread their tentacles even oceans away, thus impeding a possible relationship.
The American exile is also an opportunity for consolidating friendships, such as the one between the narrator and his blood brothers Bon, who lost his family in the ambush getaway from Saigon, and Man, a sympathizer with the Communists with whom he exchanges coded letters through a decoy address in Paris. As part of his double identity, the Captain is forced to chase a false mole and commit murder so as to keep the General from finding out that he is in fact reporting their actions to a higher-up in the Viet Cong.
In an attempt to provide our protagonist a much needed respite from his complicated secret life, the narrator creates a mini sub-plot in the form of a movie in the Philippines which is supposed to glorify the efforts of the Americans during the Vietnam War. Hired as a historical consultant, the Captain is caught up in this propaganda campaign that once again underlines the superficiality through which the Hollywood industry has manipulated the realities of the war, emphasizing their own greatness as opposed to the Vietnamese “little part of the world”. This is also a melancholic period and serves him as a time for meditation regarding his origins and the trials he went through while training for becoming a spy.
Once the movie is over, back in Los Angeles, the Captain prepares the stage for his return which ends up in his own imprisonment. It is in these episodes that we learn who is the mastermind between all the political games, and we get to witness the practices of the Communist regime “at its best”. Redemption through labour, abominable tortures based on Soviet techniques, mind games at the highest level, these are just a few methods through which the washed brains were expected to absorb the revolutionary ideas and beg for forgiveness. Although the imprisonment scenes are very intense, the climax is predictable and the confession is devoid of sentiments. Once again, the writer fails to establish a connection with the reader.
„While pain is universal, it is also utterly private. We cannot know whether our pain is like anybody else’s pain until we talk about it. Once we do that, we speak and think in ways cultural and individual. In this country, for example, someone fleeing for his life will think he should call for the police. This is a reasonable way to cope with the threat of pain. But in my country, no one calls for the police, since it is often the police who inflicts the pain.”
The Sympathizer is a dense novel that focuses on the political realities of the fall of Saigon in 1975 and afterwards. Its construction is reminiscent of a journal, but a rather impersonal and cold one, which provides a brilliant insight into the cultural dimensions of the American-Vietnamese relationship and into the espionage world of the Communists. A great read from a historical point of view, but a weak narrative from the action and character angle, as it lacks a sense of thrill and emotion.