The Sympathizer was a fascinating read. Having never read literature related to Vietnam War before, this book written by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Vietnamese American helped me put things into perspective.
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 issue from both sides.
We never learn the name of Nguyen’s protagonist. In this novel which starts in 1975, just before the fall of Saigon, he is a Viet Cong spy who has won the trust of a South Vietnamese General. But The Sympathizer is not your typical espionage novel because the narrator is someone who does not really fall into one category. He has two “blood brothers”; Bon, a pro-American and a veteran of the C.I.A. sponsored Phoenix program of assassination, and Man, a Communist and the narrator’s handler. The narrator educated in the USA is also the illegitimate son of a Vietnamese teenager and a French pastor. Due to his tangled identities, he sees both sides of the story and has sympathy for both.
I will not go into the plot in detail because I do not think I will be able to do justice to the story by trying to summarize it. However, I will share with you some of the observations I admired.
Movies were America’s way of softening up the rest of the world, Hollywood relentlessly assaulting the mental defenses of audiences with the hit, the smash, the spectacle, the block-buster, and yes, even the box office bomb.
In The Sympathizer, the narrator has to travel to the Philippines to help shoot The Hamlet, a Hollywood movie based on Vietnam War. Before the narrator’s involvement in the movie, the Vietnamese roles were to be played by other Asians, and none of them were even given intelligible speaking parts! Nguyen pokes fun at America’s tendency to make the Vietnam War a one-sided conversation and romanticize it, instead of trying to capture the horror of the war and its aftermath. The way he puts it, the Vietnam War is “the first war where the losers would write the history instead of the victors.”
When he interviewed me, he wanted to know whether I spoke any Japanese. I explained that I was born in Gardena. He said, Oh, you nisei, as if knowing that one word means he knows something about me. You’ve forgotten your culture, Ms. Mori, even though you’re only second generation. Your issei parents, they hung on to their culture. Don’t you want to learn Japanese? Don’t you want to visit Nippon? For a long time I felt bad. I wondered why I didn’t want to learn Japanese, why I didn’t already 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? Isn’t my culture right here since I was born here? Of course I didn’t ask him those questions. I just smiled and said, You’re so right, sir. She sighed. It’s a job.
Like the above bit on occident vs. orient racial microaggressions narrated by Ms. Mori, a colleague of the narrator after he is evacuated to the USA from Vietnam, Nguyen’s wry humor can be found in abundance throughout the book.
Even if the subject is heavy, Nguyen’s writing will keep you reading the book till the end. And The Sympathizer is not a book that you should miss!