The Sympathizer is an unnamed sleeper agent from North Vietnam living in the USA, who now sets out to write his confession. Our narrator is a man from two worlds: a communist masquerading as a capitalist. A North Vietnamese who is an aide-de-camp to one of South Vietnam’s top generals. A child of a French father and a Vietnamese mother, he is always part of two worlds while never belonging to either.
Starting with the Vietnam War, Viet Thanh Nguyen takes us on a journey looking at the Asian-American experience through their eyes. Not only is it extremely illuminating, it is also absolutely hilarious. Like this moment when a Japanese American bemoans her lot:
For a long time I felt bad. I wondered why I didn’t want to learn Japanese, why I already didn’t speak Japanese, why I would rather go to Paris or Istanbul or Barcelona rather than Tokyo. But then I thought, Who cares? Did anyone ask John F. Kennedy if he spoke Gaelic and visited Dublin or if he ate potatoes every night or if he collected paintings of leprechauns? So why are we supposed to not forget our culture?
The book has a strong vein of this sardonic humour. The Vietnamese are living, breathing people in this novel in the way they rarely are in books written by outsiders. In The Sympathizer, Nguyen frequently runs his eye over the existing Vietnam book and film industry, with devastating put-downs of people like Graham Greene and Francis Ford Coppola:
My meeting with the Auteur and Violet had gone on for a while longer, mostly in a more subdued fashion, with me pointing out that the lack of speaking parts for Vietnamese people in a movie set in Vietnam might be interpreted as cultural insensitivity. True, Violet interjected, but what it boils down to is who pays for the tickets and goes to the movies … Even so, I said, do you not think it would be a little more believable, a little more realistic, a little more authentic, for a movie set in a certain country for the people in that country to have something to say, instead of having your screenplay direct, as it does now, Cut to villagers speaking in their own language?
Having recently watched the Netflix documentary The Vietnam War definitely aided me navigate this book. The novel calls for a reasonable knowledge of the history of the country both before, during and after the conflict. Just to give two examples, it helps to know what the ARVN is (the Army of the Republic of Vietnam – i.e. the US allies), as well as how the in-fighting in the shambolic South Vietnamese government lead to the country’s eventual domination by the communists of ‘Uncle Ho’.
Apart from the great comic writing, what really puts this book in the premier league is its wisdom. It’s one of those novels which condenses a lifetime of thought into a single volume, so that you know you will need to revisit it to distill all these ideas into some kind of easily digestible form.
Alas though, towards the end, it all goes a bit haywire. From chapter 19 onwards, it basically becomes one long rant, using blunt weapons to get the point across (including a torture victim who calls herself ‘Viet Nam’). It almost feels like a different book after the preceding four hundred pages of brilliance.
Even so, The Sympathizer is going to become a classic, read and re-read long into the future. It’s funny, wise, intelligent and brilliant: a Catch-22 for the Vietnam War.