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Review: The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Grove/Atlantic, 2015. 371 pp. $26

“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces,” the narrator known only as the Captain declares in this novel’s first line, also the start of his “confession.” And what a harrowing, painful outpouring he commits to paper in what appears to be solitary confinement, inflicted by captors at first unidentified. He tells of being born illegitimate in North Vietnam, of half-European parentage, and the vicious prejudice that pursues him as a result. His only consolations are the unwavering love of a mother who died young, and two longtime friends whose loyalty sustains him and for whom he would lay down his life. He talks about his education in the United States, and his attraction for aspects of American culture, not least its freer sexual mores. But mostly, he recounts what he did–or failed to do–as a Communist mole within the South Vietnamese intelligence service, a riveting-to-the-eyeballs tale of crimes he committed to protect his secret identity, trying desperately to play both sides. Accordingly, he knows more than he cares to about murder, rape, treachery, napalm, torture, racism, and hypocrisy, and he delivers much of his story with brilliant observations that are often howlingly funny in a raw, dark way.

Operation Frequent Wind, 29 April 1975. As Saigon fell, some Vietnamese civilians were evacuated to U.S. Navy vessels, as here, and granted asylum (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons via U.S. Marines; public domain)

Operation Frequent Wind, 29 April 1975. As Saigon fell, some Vietnamese civilians were evacuated to U.S. Navy vessels, as here, and granted asylum (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons via U.S. Marines; public domain).

“What was it like,” he asks rhetorically, “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 not a basket case kept alive only through the intravenous drip of American aid?” Much as he admires American culture, he deflates our “Disneyland ideology of happiness,” our pretense of eternal innocence no matter how many times we’ve lost it in dirty wars or tricks, “citizens of a democracy destroying another country in order to save it.” And when you pretend innocence, you can believe that anything you do is just, whereas, “at least we who believe in our own guilt know what dark things we can do.”

Not that the South Vietnamese government is any better. The General, under whom the Captain serves, is a gifted, patriotic leader who pays lip service to moral assumptions only so long as they prop up his power and self-image. He’s seen everything, learned nothing. Ditto the Communists, who think life is a science determined by historical axioms, and who have no use for love, except for the teachings of Marx and Mao, which the Captain has hardly studied–they’ve no feeling to them. “How could I forget,” he remarks toward the end, “that every truth meant at least two things, that slogans were the empty suits draped on the corpse of an idea?” Most particularly, he deplores the cold sexlessness to which communism aspires, “the belief that every comrade is supposed to behave like a noble peasant whose hard hoe is devoted only to farming.”

Consequently, the Captain belongs nowhere, and it’s his ability to see everything from the outside–his sole talent, he thinks–that only worsens his sense of isolation. But it does make for terrific satire. He meets a right-wing congressman, a filmmaker, a professor of Asian studies, and skewers them all, without ever claiming to be superior. The Captain’s flaws are front and center, in fact, to the point that the sympathizer can be hard to sympathize with.

This novel is very disturbing, and some readers may shy away because of it. In particular, the graphic violence can be hard to take. But if you can, give it a try. Such grisliness often puts me off, but the subject here matters to me. I came of age during the Vietnam War, which left a deep impression, and about which I’ve read many fine books. To me, this one surpasses them all–for its unsparing honesty, insight, breadth, and vivid prose. What’s more, it’s even a first novel, further proof to a fellow author that life just isn’t fair.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.