Gradually, as my bruised forehead healed, and as I absorbed my own words, I developed a growing sympathy for the man in these pages, the intelligence operative of doubtful intelligence. Was he a fool or too smart for his own good? Had he chosen the right side or the wrong side of history? And were not these the questions we should all ask ourselves?
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer is about as impressive a novel as the adulatory blurbs dripping from my paperback edition declare it to be, though I puzzled at some of the ways they characterize the book (“sparkling”?). For me, its interest built as it went along: at first it was gripping, certainly, but the narrator’s self-conscious ironic detachment felt like a trick that might lose its magic over time, unbroken as it is by any alternative voices to inject either critique or sincerity. After a while, though, I realized that these qualities are in fact part of the narrator’s own account–competing parts of it, in a way, as his self-criticism makes his moments of genuine sympathy more about indictment than redemption. That he can sympathize–that he remains so human–makes his acts of betrayal that much worse, and he knows it. By the end, too, we learn that his story–his confession–is not complete, that even as he admits his own duplicity, his own complicity in horrible acts of violence, he has also excused himself, tried to absent himself, from the worst of it.
That this first-person narrator, supposedly writing a full confession, has misrepresented himself is just one of the many ways in which The Sympathizer complicates the kinds of binaries the novel exposes as creations, or at least fixations, of those in power. Himself a double agent, both a member of the Secret Police and a mole for the Communists, the narrator is on both sides at once, “a man,” as he says, “of two faces.” He is also, as other people constantly remind him, “a bastard,” child of a French father and a Vietnamese mother, never able to be quite one thing or another. In a way that turns out to be characteristic of the novel as a whole, this is a problem that operates on two levels: it is about him in particular, and about the specifics of his history and situation, both personal and national; and it is a universal issue, because his is not the only context in which a destructive idea of purity is part of a larger structure of oppression. The “reeducation” camp where the narrator ends up is just the horrific extreme of a world in which all too often enemies are defined by their resistance to the kind of single-mindedness that is antithetical to the narrator.
My edition of The Sympathizer includes as appendices a New York Times opinion piece by Viet Thanh Nguyen called “Our Vietnam War Never Ended” and an interview with him by Paul Tran called “Anger in the Asian American Novel.” I read both of these through before I read the novel (cautiously at first, ready to turn away if there seemed to be significant spoilers). I did this because I thought I might not recognize important features of the novel given my own limited knowledge of the Vietnam War, or of other representations of it. I have never, for example, read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American or Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke (both discussed in these articles); I have never seen Apocalypse Now, and though I’ve seen Platoon, I have no particular memory of it. Growing up in Canada, the Vietnam War was never a big part of my historical mythology except insofar as it featured largely in American history, particularly (in my own intellectual experience, anyway) in the form of anti-war protests and draft dodgers.
The additional materials did give me a heads-up about some of the novel’s goals, but I think I would have grasped the key issues in any case. Though it’s not a novel that flaunts its metafictionality, it is overtly concerned with representation, which inevitably highlights its own status as an alternative story of the Vietnam War. “Not to own the means of production,” observes the narrator, “can lead to premature death, but not to own the means of representation is also a kind of death.” Within the plot, he attempts to seize the means of representation–or at least to have a small share in them–by his work as a consultant on “the Movie.” When he first sees the script, it is for “a movie about our country where not a single one of our countrymen had an intelligible word to say.” “The lack of speaking parts for Vietnamese people in a movie set in Vietnam,” he points out to the famous director (sardonically called “the Auteur”) “might be interpreted as cultural insensitivity.” In his interview with Paul Tran, Nguyen says that he meant The Sympathizer to fill a gap: “I felt that there still wasn’t a novel that directly confronts the history of the American war in Vietnam from the Vietnamese American point of view.”
Not only does The Sympathizer as a whole offer a different perspective on the war that (Nguyen points out) is called “the American War” in Vietnam, but it addresses the “lack of speaking parts” formally, because in it the narrator himself obviously has the only “speaking part.” Nguyen does not, however, use the narrator’s voice as a tool to “humanize” the Vietnamese for an American audience accustomed to the kind of reductive, two-dimensional portrayals he resists in the Movie. This is something, again, that he addresses in the interview:
Rather than writing a book that tries to affirm humanity, which is typically the position that minority writers are put into, the book starts from the assumption that we are human, and then goes on to prove that we’re also inhuman at the same time.
Everybody in this book, especially our protagonist, is guilty of some kind of terrible behavior.
I thought Nguyen’s explicit interest in reclaiming the right to be inhuman was really interesting: it includes but goes beyond insisting on complexity. The narrator certainly is complex, and he is guilty of terrible behavior, and he is also subjected to terrible behavior. He is highly critical of America, but his criticism isn’t based on a tidy dichotomy between American evil and Vietnamese victimization. Being sympathetic, the novel insists, is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for humanity–and neither is sympathizing.
The Sympathizer is a fairly high concept novel, then, but it is also a compelling read as a war novel and a spy novel. I didn’t find it as funny as a lot of other reviewers apparently did, but it is certainly a stinging satire, of American hypocrisy and self-delusion in particular but also of pomp and corruption and ideological posturing on all sides. I did think at times that it was a bit overwritten: Nguyen is fond of extra-super-clever metaphors in particular (“Longing flooded the basement of my heart . . . The vodka, when served, was . . . the paint thinner I needed to strip down the stained, flaking walls of my interior”). There’s a certain flamboyance to this that wore on me, although it could be argued that these are the narrator’s flourishes, not the novelist’s, and meant as evidence of what he is later accused of by his interrogators: that he has been corrupted by the West. “In practice,” says the Commandant to whom his confession is nominally addressed, “you are a bourgeois intellectual. . . . your language betrays you. It is not clear, not succinct, not simple. It is the language of the elite. You must write for the people.” Once again, the threat is to his voice, to his role as a speaking part. That makes the narrator’s confession, the novel itself, a revolutionary act. As a result, in spite of everything he has said and done–maybe even because of it–it’s hard not to find the narrator himself, “the man in these pages,” a sympathetic character.
Yours is one of the most thoughtful reviews of this book I have read. Like you, I did not find the mordant humor or “satire” that other reviewers found, and the comparison to a book like “Catch-22” missed the mark for me. I actually thought it read more like “1984” for reasons that I won’t say because it would telegraph a substantial spoiler. Nevertheless, even in the sections that were supposed to be a satire of the filming of “Apocalypse Now” I found done with an absence of significant irony. I didn’t think it was the best American novel of 2016 (for that I would have picked “The Nix,”), but it certainly brought to the forefront a point of view that was different from any other I have read, and should shake Americans brought up in the ’60s (as I was) out of their solipsistic worldview, certainly a cautionary tale for life in 21st century not-s0-Great America.
I have been “rattled” by your book, “The Sympathizer.”
I’ve read “Hue 1968” and the poetry of Ocean Vuong, “Night Sky with Exit Wounds.” Your book inspired a journey that changed and continues to change my world view. Literature is powerful.