The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

the-sympathizerFiction — audiobook. Read by Francois Chau. Audible Studios, 2015. 13 hours, 53 minutes. Purchased.

The narrator in Nguyen’s novel is a man serving in the South Vietnamese army as a caption and watching the collapse of his country in April 1975. He has grown increasingly disillusioned with the Vietnam War and the role of the Americans, whom he refers to as drug dealers now cutting off the supply.

This disillusionment is further fostered by the fact the unnamed narrator is a man of divided loyalties — half-French and half-Vietnamese by heritage and a communist sleeper agent by choice.

“They were my enemies, and yet they were also brothers-in-arms. Their beloved city was about to fall, but mine was soon to be liberated. It was the end of their world, but only a shifting of worlds for me.”

The novel begins with the narrator instructed to allocate the last seats on an evacuating airplane to members of the commanding General’s family and senior officials in the South Vietnamese army and government. He secures a spot on the plane for his friend Bon, his infant godson, and himself, and is evacuated to Los Angeles among other South Vietnamese refugees.

“What was it like to live in a time when one’s fate was not war, when one was not led by the craven and the corrupt, when one’s country was a basket case kept alive only through the intravenous drip of American aid?”

There, the narrator, the General, and other refugees from South Vietnam struggle to adjust to life in America. The men — especially the General — feel emasculated by American society, and the constant suspicion towards their heritage and their loyalties as well as the pervasive belief among Americans that the Vietnam War was unnecessary and immoral led to their further disillusionment.

Eager to recapture their status in society, the General and other ARVN officers in the Los Angeles area begin developing a plan to raise an army and return to Vietnam. The unnamed narrator takes a different tack, however, and travels to the Philippines to consult on a Hollywood film about the war in the belief that the film will show the nuances to the war.

“We are all guilty until proven innocence, as even the Americans have shown. Why else do they believe everyone is really Viet Cong? Why else do they shoot first and ask questions later? Because to them all yellow people are guilty until proven innocent. Americans are a confused people because they can’t admit this contradiction. They believe in a universe of divine justice where they human race is guilty of sin, but they also believe in a secular justice where human beings are presumed innocent. You can’t have both. You know how Americans deal with it? They pretend they are eternally innocent no matter how many times they lose their innocence.”

In the Philippines, the narrator learns that American audiences are uninterested in the experiences of the South Vietnamese. (The film hires Filipino actors to play Vietnamese because the director sees all Asians as the same, which angers the narrator further.) The experience causes him to change his mind about accompanying the General back to Vietnam, and his capture and imprisonment by the Vietnamese Army finally affords him to share the nuanced reflection on the war and his loyalties that he has always sought to produce.

Nguyen’s novel is filled with thought-provoking passages about the experience of the Vietnamese diaspora in the United States; it was difficult to limit myself to only a few for this review. And there is a refreshing amount of candor in its discussion of how the country failed to live up to its ideals both during the war and in the aftermath for those who ended up seeing refuge here.

“Refugee, exile, immigrant – whatever species of displaced human we were, we did not simply live in two cultures, as celebrants of the great American melting pot imagined. Displaced people also lived in two time zones, the here and the there, the present and the past, being as we were reluctant time travelers. But while science fiction imagined time travelers as moving forward or backwards in time, this timepiece demonstrated a different chronology. The open secret of the clock, naked for all to see, was that we were only going in circles.”

The experiences of the narrator on a Hollywood set were particularly intriguing as movies often set our understanding of history. He tried so hard to reform from within yet his efforts were spurn and caused him to feel even more disenchanted with American society. (These scenes reminded me of the conversation surrounding a novel recently turned movie about Asian Americans and how rare it is to see Asian Americans in leading roles in American films.)

As thought provoking as these scenes and passages were, though, the novel lacks momentum, and the unnamed narrator seemed rather stilted for the majority of the book. Ngyuen is determined to show nuances to the experience of Vietnamese-Americans after the war, but he rarely showed nuances with his characters, despite the narrator’s divided loyalties.

Ultimately, my desire to finish it was fostered more by a looming deadline to finish the 20 Books of Summer Challenge rather than the story itself. But I enjoyed the novel’s message enough that I’m still curious to read more of Nguyen’s work in the future.

Nguyen’s novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Fiction in 2016. The novel also won the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature for Adult Fiction in 2015. 

This is my fifteenth book for #20BooksofSummer. I purchased this novel at my public library’s used book sale — I found a bookmark from the sale tucked inside — but I don’t know exactly which sale in 2017 that I bought it from.


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