Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Vietnam War novel, The Sympathizer (Grove Press), takes a unique approach revealing itself as a North Vietnamese Army spy’s forced confession to his commandant upon returning to Vietnam from a lengthy stay in America. Through the course of the confession, The Sympathizer brings forth a multitude of dualities the narrator must deal with as well as focusing on the way America dealt with the Vietnam War and the attention given to the American psyche rather than the historical reality.
While taking on the greater focus of the novel, that of examining America’s two major exports, war and movies, Nguyen examines the difficulties of duality in life. Not only is the narrator an NVA spy living in America, during the course of his confession, he addresses feelings of guilt over deciding who is to stay and who is to leave on transports out of Saigon, guilt over men he has killed to keep his cover, men whose ghosts torment him after their death, shame for having parents of different ethnic backgrounds, and sexual desires – all of which can be directed towards American culture and American racism.
In a 1944 magazine column, George Orwell wrote, “A Nazi and a non-Nazi version of the present war would have no resemblance to one another, and which of them finally gets into the history books will be decided not by evidential methods but on the battlefield.” In The Sympathizer, Nguyen writes, “…this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine created (with respect to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis, who never achieved global domination).” Showcasing the way propaganda plays on the American, the narrator lands a job as an advisor on a big budget motion picture about the Vietnam War. His role is to bring realism to the project and while he sees this as an opportunity to influence the American propaganda machine, every attempt to inject NVA realism into the film is steam rolled and eventually blown up when he is injured and sent to the hospital by explosions during the film’s climactic end – explosions set off too soon. He is as lost trying to gain any footing in this endeavor as he is trying to understand his captivity by the novel’s end. The movie our narrator works on is a thinly veiled representation of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Nguyen uses this movie to demonstrate how Hollywood isn’t concerned with facts but rather the emotional impact of making Americans feel on the right side of history by fighting the good fight. We create enemies by writing them, filming them, playing them in a bad light and then selling these images to a hungry public as implied fact. The most fascinating aspect of this statement comes as Nguyen, an American Novelist, writing as an NVA spy, describes his torture and denial of basic human decencies by his communist captors, thereby further tainting our view of communism and the NVA. This is not a portrait of the Vietnam War and its aftermath by a former NVA soldier such as Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War. This is a commentary on American hegemony and the evil of communism by a scholar with the experience to comment on such things; a Vietnam refugee and American citizen. The struggle for the narrator is to find a balance with his dual ethnicity which has defined every aspect of his life. The struggle for the reader is to come to terms with how liberal Hollywood so willingly takes up the task of whitewashing American history.
The complexities of The Sympathizer undoubtedly make this novel one that may be read a number of times with new information garnered by each reading. Nguyen’s has masterful command of both pen and language. There are moments in the novel when thoughts and descriptions run their course and Nguyen makes them run even faster. In the end, I’m left with a very real desire for the separation between truth and fiction – a separation that The Sympathizer shows is as hard to find as it is difficult to realize.
Viet Thanh Nguyen