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Thursday, May 12, 2016

Review of THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen



4 Stars

I am not a reader of spy thrillers or war novels, but this book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and has appeared on the lists of several literary awards.  What I enjoyed the most about the novel is its social satire.

The nameless protagonist-narrator is an Americanized Vietnamese with a divided heart and mind.  His narrative takes the form of a confession written to a Commandant.  It begins in the final days of the Vietnam War when the Americans are being evacuated from Saigon.  The narrator is an aide-de-camp to the chief of the South Vietnamese secret police, but he is a Communist undercover agent whose handler is Man, a former classmate who became a “blood brother”.  He becomes a refuge in Los Angeles but continues as a Viet Cong spy, keeping tabs on other refugees who are making plans to return to Vietnam and mount a counter-revolution.

In the section detailing the narrator’s time in the U.S., social satire comes to the fore.  There are many comments on the shallowness of American culture.  For example, “America’s most unique architectural contribution to the world [is] a parking lot.”  And “America, land of supermarkets and superhighways, of supersonic jets and Superman, of supercarriers and the Super Bowl! . . . Although every country thought itself superior in its own way, was there ever a country that coined so many ‘super’ terms from the federal bank of its narcissism . . . ” 

The book is also a satirical look at the promises of the American Dream.  There is reference to the “Cyclopean eye of the IRS” which means that taxation is “a basic tenet of the American Dream.  Not only must [a man] make a living, he must also pay for it.”  Refugees are “hobbled by their structural function in the American Dream, which was to be so unhappy as to make other Americans grateful for their happiness.”  The refugees may want to assimilate but the Americans are not easily accepting of them because “all yellow people are guilty until proven innocent.”  The Vietnamese refugees remain a faceless, voiceless people. 

The novel provides a new perspective on the Vietnam War in contrast to the one provided by Hollywood.  The narrator serves as a cultural advisor on a film about the war entitled The Hamlet.  He wants to give voice to the Vietnamese characters but “My task was to ensure that the people scuttling in the background of the film would be real Vietnamese people saying real Vietnamese things and dressed in real Vietnamese clothing, right before they died.”  It soon becomes obvious that the author is criticizing the “egomaniacal imagination” of directors like Francis Ford Coppola who would undoubtedly see a film like Apocalypse Now as “more important than the three or four or six million dead who composed the real meaning of the war.” 

Of course, there is also a discussion of war and revolution.  What is emphasized is the futility of the Vietnam War for the Americans.  And even for the winners of the war, there is disillusion:  “a revolution fought for independence and freedom could make those things worth less than nothing.”

This book is not an easy read.  The last section in particular is difficult with its abundant brutality.  The book, however, is a worthwhile read.  The sympathizer is often more a spy on Americans than on the South Vietnamese.  Though he is a Communist sympathizer, he shows that the South Vietnamese are worthy of sympathy because they were largely abandoned and betrayed by the Americans.  The sympathizer summarizes what was gained:  “I said, Nothing, nothing, nothing, a grinning simpleton huddled in the corner.”