Review- Nguyen, “The Sympathizer”

Viet Thanh Nguyen, “The Sympathizer” (2015) (narrated by Francois Chau) – This novel was quite interesting at times in spite of itself. The story of an unnamed ex-captain in the South Vietnamese national police, it’s mostly told in the form of a confession to an unknown commissar holding the narrator prisoner after the war is over. The narrator had been a mole for the National Liberation Front, and remained in that role even after the fall of Saigon and his evacuation, along with his commanding officer, to Southern California.

True to the title, the narrator is a sympathizer- always seeing things from multiple sides. He’s part of a trio of best friends with Bon, a sincere South Vietnamese nationalist killer, and Man, a fellow communist spy and the narrator’s handler. While he ultimately opposes the US intervention in Vietnam and wants a communist government, the narrator knows and likes Americans, even studying American Studies (which Nguyen teaches) when sent to American university. He’s half-Vietnamese, half-French, product of an illicit relationship between a French priest and a Vietnamese teenager.

He is, in short, both a classic and a very contemporary kind of subject. I try not to make everything an ideological critique, but some works call out for it. This is the great Vietnam novel of representation-minded 21st century liberalism- arguably, the great novel of that strain thus far, period. This isn’t the liberalism of JFK, which got the US into Vietnam in the first place. This is a liberalism of ambiguity and failure, but also of boundless room for individualistic variation, in short, the liberalism with which we now live.

This probably makes “The Sympathizer” sound worse than it is to most of my readership. But Nguyen is a capable writer (if a little much with the similes sometimes), and the representationist predilections only come out in the book about halfway through. The initial parts of the book depicting the fall of Saigon are great, as are his depictions of refugee life in Southern California, with its generals running liquor stores and skullduggery among politicians and wannabe liberators.

The representation-liberalism stuff really comes in when the narrator is hired as a consultant on a “Platoon” type movie directed by someone only called The Auteur. There, we are treated to the narrator’s long struggle to get some kind of meaningful Vietnamese or at least Asian representation in an exploitative film, and it goes so badly he’s almost blown up on set. This, and the narrator’s further negotiations with identity and love life around the same time, is less interesting to me than the other earlier parts of the story. But it clearly provides some of the emotional juice for the author and I suspect much of the readership I saw with this book on the train a few years back. It wasn’t bad- just next to the epochal struggle of the Vietnam War, it’s hard to care about some shitty ‘nam flick.

The end was also less compelling than the beginning. I’ll avoid spoilers though I don’t really have to, as the big reveal in the end is pretty obvious. The narrator and Bon go back to Vietnam as part of some hopeless Bay of Pigs-style scheme, and get captured. There’s then an extended, chapters-long torture and interrogation sequence, reminiscent of Orwell’s in “1984,” complete with speeches about the meaning of man and reflections on the inevitability of revolutions turning to inward-facing violence and corruption, etc. In the end, not unlike Winston Smith, the narrator comes to an exhausted, lighthearted, nihilistic epiphany. Human folly is ultimately about human folly with no point to it. The end.

I don’t know. Maybe this is just the red in me, but I think the revolution in Vietnam had a pretty distinct point- the will of the Vietnamese people to be governed according to their own lights. Or maybe it’s the negative in me- it’s worth it not to be ruled by assholes, and if a new set of assholes comes in, well, you revolt against them too. Use your limited time in this earth to make assholes uncomfortable- guess that’s my motto. It strikes me of as good of one as “nothing,” which the narrator winds up screaming as the big lesson he learned. Either way, this is a very interesting piece of work, for good and for… not even ill, just “less good.” ****

Review- Nguyen, “The Sympathizer”