Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Sympathizer is a confession written by a nameless narrator to a nameless commandant. The narrator suffers from the ability to see both sides of events and of people. Through his confession, he reveals his life story, which is tied up with the history of his country, Vietnam, and foreign intervention there. Given his sympathetic nature, the narrator is able to see at times the good intentions but especially the bad of all those involved in his life and in the war. Nguyen’s perspective on the war in Vietnam and refugee life in America is unique not only because he is Vietnamese but also because he offers no apologies, no excuses for the various sides presented or for his characters. As he explains in an interview at the end, everyone is capable of being both human and inhuman.
From birth, the narrator has been a person divided. He is a bastard whose father was a French priest and his mother a very young Vietnamese girl. As such, he has never quite belonged to any world — he is most certainly not white, but he is also not Vietnamese enough for his fellow countrymen. Neither his father nor his mother’s family acknowledge him. His resentment toward his father and foreign influence is evident throughout the confession. His loneliness and outsider status as a child only make his few friendships more powerful and important to him. The two boys, Bon and Man, who stood up with him against bullies remain his lifelong friends and blood brothers. Man introduced him to revolutionary ideology and brought him into the communist movement, and as a result the narrator serves as a spy or mole for the communists. An excellent student, he also drew the attention of CIA operative Claude and went to college in California in the 1960s. The narrator speaks English without an accent and has manners and a demeanor that White Americans find attractive. The narrator winds up serving in the secret police in South Vietnam, trained and supported by the United States. He is the driver and right-hand-man for the secret police’s top officer, the General. This position allows the narrator to feed information back to the communists but also puts him in difficult situations when suspected Viet Cong agents are brought in for questioning and torture. As the war progresses and it becomes evident that Saigon will fall, the narrator hopes to stay and help the revolution, but Man tells him he must join the General and forces escaping to America. From there, his job will be to report on their efforts to regroup and stage a counter-invasion. Man expressly tells the narrator not to return to Vietnam until given permission.
Back in California, the narrator, General and other Vietnamese refugees struggle to get along. Men who had had power, authority and respect in Vietnam now live in ramshackle apartments and work at menial jobs, if they can find one at all. The narrator, thanks to his personal connections, is able to find a university job (answering phones), but he continues to assist the General in his work to reclaim Vietnam from the communists. The two men have meetings with Claude, an influential congressmen and others who might be able to help fund their plan. Meanwhile, in one of the most entertaining yet provocative parts of the book, the narrator also manages to become a “technical consultant” for a major motion picture (think Francis Ford Coppola and “Apocalypse Now”). His hope is to influence the film in such a way as to help promote the goals of the revolution but he ends up clashing with the director, known as the Auteur. His suggestion that actual Vietnamese characters be included in the story and be given a voice is met with hostility, but eventually incorporated into the film — just not in the way the narrator expects. Nguyen’s dissection of Hollywood and its treatment of minorities and their stories is quite damning and deservedly so. Nguyen scores direct hits against the predominance of the White point of view in American storytelling and the movies:
…I was flummoxed by having read a screenplay whose greatest special effect was neither the blowing up of various things nor the evisceration of various bodies but the achievement of narrating a movie about our country where not a single one of our countrymen had an intelligible word to say.
I was maddened by my helplessness before the Auteur’s imagination and machinations. His arrogance marked something new in the world, for this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors….
Nguyen strikes a further blow against American racism through the character Ms. Mori, a fellow employee in the university’s “Oriental” Studies Department. Ms. Mori is Japanese American, born in the United States; she doesn’t know Japanese and has no desire to visit Japan, which stuns the white men who run the department. She tells the narrator that she used to feel bad about it, 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?
Yet, it’s not just Americans/whites on the receiving end of Nguyen’s critical gaze. As the plan for return to Vietnam progresses, the General, fearful of infiltrators and spies in his ranks, turns to the narrator to perform a few deeds that give him pause, deeds that will haunt him, in a literal way, for the rest of the story. The plan and its aftermath show the narrator and the reader that the Vietnamese are as capable of screwing each other over as Americans and Europeans ever were.
The end of the novel is quite brutal, and it leaves the destinies of some characters still in question. In an interview included at the end, Nguyen indicates that a sequel is not out of the question, which is something to hope for. The interview in and of itself is worth a read for Nguyen’s explanation of his overall message in his work and for what he has to say about “dominant gaze” and minority writers. The Sympathizer is a great story and recommended for anyone interested in Vietnam and American involvement there. I think sometimes readers are put off by novels that win big prizes, thinking that the works must be impenetrable to the average person. Not true! This is a thrilling story with sharp insights and criticism, and, believe it or not, humor.