The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Grove Press, 2015; 317 pp
Reviewed by Jack Hill
Viet Thanh Nguyen's debut novel, The Sympathizer, is an intriguing, genre-bending saga told through the confessions of an unnamed Vietnamese military captain doubling as a communist spy during the Vietnam War. The story starts near the end of the war as the narrator leaves Vietnam for the United States where he works for a professor by day and carries out violent acts for his former/current general by night to keep from blowing his cover. Eventually, he returns to Vietnam with a small team of soldiers against the orders of his communist handler. In that final section, The Sympathizer takes several unexpected turns, ultimately coming full circle, in a sense, and concluding gracefully.
Nguyen's deft and layered storytelling explores themes such as the clashes between cultural, national, and personal identity or the costs of ideology. For instance, an amalgam of capitalism, individualism, and state control is examined after the narrator and his friend, Bon, are tasked with assassinating a former Vietnamese major now working in a U.S. gas station. The narrator uses his tax refund to buy alcohol so he may remain “uneasily steeped in amnesia” because choice is his “sacred American right” (85). After bagging the liquor bottles, Bon shows him a shotgun and notes that it is “Easier to get a gun here than to vote or drive. You don't even need to know any English” (86).
The Sympathizer especially shines when special attention is paid to the intersections of violence, production, and the physical body. While the narrator works as a technical consultant on an American film set during the Vietnam War, he notes how violence is reenacted by the film's Vietnamese characters:
An obedient tribe of zombies rose from the earth, a score of dismembered dead men stumbling forth from the makeup tent all bruised and bloodied, clothing ripped and torn. Some leaned on comrades and hobbled on only one leg, the other leg strapped up to their thigh. In a free hand they carried a fake limb, the white bone protruding, which they positioned somewhere close once they lay down. Others, with an arm inside a shirt and a sleeve hanging empty, carried a fake mangled arm, while a few cupped the brains falling out of their heads. Some gingerly clutched their exposed intestines, which looked for all the world like glistening strings of white, uncooked sausages because that was what they were. (169)
During filming, the narrator realizes that the “Movie was just a sequel to our war and a prequel to the next one that America was destined to wage” (173). And, prior to a bombing scene, he states: “Ultimately, the technology used to actually obliterate natives came from the military-industrial complex of which Hollywood was a part, doing its dutiful role in the artificial obliteration of natives” (173). The protagonist's time as a film consultant is but one of many links in a complex narrative chain where Nguyen challenges our understanding/acceptance of history.