Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (2015)

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel begins The Sympathizer with a riddle “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man with two faces”. What is he? Might we ask. The line was spoken by a double agent working for the North Vietnamese Communists as well as for the United States during and shortly after the Vietnam War. He spies while working as part of the staff of a South Vietnamese general and then escapes to California after the fall of Saigon in 1975. He keeps an eye on the exiled Vietnamese, and escorts a guerrilla force that wants to invade Vietnam via Laos. He is caught and ends up in a Vietnamese re-education camp. The novel is an accountability report, a confession and a biography, written by the nameless first-person narrator on behalf of the camp commandant.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, who fled Vietnam with his family to the United States when he was four and then grew up there, presents a new view of the Vietnam War with his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. It is the Vietnamese perspective of the Vietnam War as it is known all over the world. The conflict in Vietnam is called the American War. This shows one aspect of the novel: the attempt to break up the cultural hegemony and interpretation of the conflict by the United States. The understanding of the war in the West is mainly influenced by the US view, by novels and films, not least by Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now–a film that the literary scholar and writer Nguyen also confronts in the novel. In an interview with the weekly TIME magazine, he explained that the film was indeed a great work of art, “but the Vietnamese were just the backdrop” against whom the Westerners “once again discovered the heart of darkness”

In exile in California, the first-person narrator is hired as a consultant for the film The Village to ensure authenticity and with everything else that has to do with Vietnam. The entanglements create humorous persiflage about the shooting of the film. The allusions to Apocalypse Now and to Francis Ford Coppola are obvious, but it goes far beyond. Nguyen exposes the film, seen in the West as a critical treatise of the war and the self-image of the United States, as part of the vast propaganda machine. Cinema is used to protect the moral superiority of the United States by hegemonic interpretation.

Nguyen avoids simple black and white, good versus evil drawings. This is reflected above all in the main character: the nameless spy stands between all worlds. As an illegitimate son of a Vietnamese and a French priest, he is always an outsider, always torn. He is a communist, but he is also fascinated by everything that is American and understands every side in the conflict between South and North Vietnam. He sympathizes with everyone involved. So he always wears a mask, so as not to be unmasked. He is always on guard, always marginally involved and always aloof. The Sympathizer is thus also a reflection with the concept of identity and on questions of morality and ideology but its greatest merits is in the way it deals with politics and history–and ultimately with the question of guilt.

Nguyen also explores events after a revolution: “What will become of those who fight against the powerful, if they seize power themselves? What will become of the revolutionaries when the revolution triumphs? “The author notes with reference to Hegel:” Tragedy is not the conflict between wrong and right, but between right and right. “Anyone who is politically active will inevitably become guilty. Likewise the nameless first-person narrator, who at the end of the book changes consistently from the “I” to the “we”: This is, on one hand, an expression of the disturbed person, the schizophrenia of life as a spy, but also a case of how each refugee stands between different worlds. Ultimately this “we” also includes us all, because the experience of wearing a mask, acting differently for the public, as well as the knowledge that no one remains free of guilt.

“The Sympathizer” is a dense and complex novel, with far-flung, entertaining subterranean humor that criticizes the US, its culture and lifestyle, as well as of Communist Vietnam and of revolution in oppression. Consistent with the intention of a “just remembrance” that Nguyen seeks: to realize that in the Vietnam War–and in all wars–all sides have victims. Every page in the novel tries to expel this guilt but concludes in what Nguyen previously wrote in his essay volume Nothing Ever Dies: “inhumanity belongs to humanity.”

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