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The Sympathizer

by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen X
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2015, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2016, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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The Sympathizer examines the legacy of the Vietnam War through the eyes of one man who has conflicting beliefs and loyalties.

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

It is only fitting that the fall of Saigon, which observed its 40th anniversary last year (see Beyond the Book), serves not as bookend, but as the opening act for Viet Thanh Nguyen's spellbinding debut, The Sympathizer. After all, the novel examines a little explored facet of the Vietnam War: its lingering aftereffects on the fractured country's diaspora.

"I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces," says the titular Sympathizer in the novel's memorable opening line. He is penning a confession to a nameless "Commandant" as he recounts how, despite being a Communist sympathizer, he wormed his way into the confidences of the fleeing South Vietnamese and managed to keep old animosities fanned. Much like the two-faced Janus of Greek myth, the Sympathizer is forever looking both forward and back — forward to a time when he and the people he reports to can make a comeback in Vietnam, and back to his life in the United States, one of the many "boat people" the country is forced to accommodate, all an uncomfortable reminder of an inglorious outcome: "The majority of Americans regarded us with ambivalence if not outright distaste, we being living reminders of their stinging defeat. We threatened the sanctity and symmetry of a white and black America whose yin and yang racial politics left no room for any other color, particularly that of pathetic little yellow-skinned people pickpocketing the American purse."

After the fall of Saigon, the Sympathizer leaves Vietnam for the United States along with a motley crew of fellow citizens, including his South Vietnamese supervisor. Even as he claims to be one of them, he watches and reports — to an unnamed higher-up — about the "General" and "Madame's" everyday activities. In the meantime, they adjust to the harsh realities of immigrant life, and open a liquor store in a seedy area of Los Angeles. It is a nod to landing on the first rung of the ladder that will surely deliver them out of their everyday dreariness, where even the Vietnamese food they recreate is two-faced: "just correct enough to evoke the past, just wrong enough to remind us that the past was forever gone." Yet it is not the American Dream with all its promise and enticements that General and Madame crave. Thousands of miles away from his native country, in the United States, the General sets up the "Fraternity of Former Soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam," an organization that supposedly helps veterans but secretly serves as front for a movement that is planning to retake Vietnam.

The Sympathizer himself is a marvel of a complex character, navigating his many loyalties with outward aplomb even as he is internally conflicted by his actions. With flawless writing, Nguyen paints his protagonist as a man haunted by many ghosts, both literal and metaphorical, his very identity being primary among them. The Sympathizer is a mixed-race Eurasian, the illegitimate son of a French man and a Vietnamese mother. Forever reminded of his place as a "bastard" in Vietnam, he is well equipped for life in America. After all, he already knows what it means to belong to two places at once, yet find neither to be yours to claim. It is this malleability that wins the Sympathizer a spot as a consultant on a Hollywood magnum opus about the Vietnam war, where "locals" serve only as added flavor, leading to an absurdity that underscores just how horribly lopsided the American outlook can be.

The war, Nguyen reminds us in this devastating novel, was not just a giant spectacle as Hollywood might make it out to be. The last helicopters circling away from Saigon might have made for a cinematic curtain call, but the horrific tragedy, The Sympathizer ably shows, continues to have long-lasting repercussions for millions, well beyond Vietnam's borders.

Reviewed by Poornima Apte

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in April 2015, and has been updated for the April 2016 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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