My neighborhood book group selected one of my choices for our March meeting: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, along with seven other literary awards. This is one of those books that I might never have chosen on my own – a spy novel set in and after the Vietnam War – but the avalanche of rave reviews (and that stack of awards) convinced me I should give it a try. I’m glad I did – it’s a remarkable book, a combination of historical fiction, political thriller, and spy novel, with a hefty dose of humor and substantial emotional depth.
The novel opens with this line from its unnamed narrator: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” He is a Vietnamese man, working for a General in the South Vietnamese army, but his sympathies lie with the communists. It is April 1975, and the Americans have warned the South Vietnamese army that they are about to pull out, causing chaos in the country. His General has asked him to make a list of those who will be allowed to leave on the last flight out, supplied by the Americans for the General who they’ve worked closely with throughout the war. Our narrator, the Captain, would much prefer to stay behind and share in the glory of a communist victory, but his superiors have told him to put himself on that plane and accompany the General to America, so that he can continue to report to them from there.
As you may remember or have read, the Fall of Saigon was horrible, violent, and indeed chaotic, and that plane filled with the General, his family, and his men and their families is the last one that makes it out in one piece. The Captain and his friend, Bon, both make it to America with other refugees and begin to try to put their lives back together, though it is not an easy life. Their other childhood friend, Man, stayed behind in Vietnam. The Captain knows he is also a communist, but their loyalties are unknown to Bon. After a while, the General settles into American life, still devoted to the Vietnamese cause, but he suspects there may be a communist spy among their community of refugees.
The entire novel is told within the framework of a confession that the Captain is writing to someone called the Commandant (clearly a communist, from his title), as he describes exactly what happened to him, from those last days in Vietnam through the refugee camps and onto the U.S. Wondering how he came to be writing this confession – and its circumstances – is one of the sources of suspense in the novel, as well as wondering whether any of his American or Vietnamese colleagues will suspect his true loyalties.
Describing the plot of this novel doesn’t even begin to do it justice because the writing is absolutely brilliant. It is clever, supple, and sometimes even funny, despite the serious circumstances surrounding the story. For instance, in his written confession, the Captain refers consistently to one particular fat and unimpressive Major as “the crapulent major.” In other cases, the author just expresses something so perfectly, with an amazingly apt metaphor, that you feel compelled to mark the passage, like where he explains as he listens to a colleague with a false aura of relaxation, alert for information, “I laughed, even though inside me the little dog of my soul was sitting at attention, nose and ears turned to the wind.”
He just has a way with words and a way of encapsulating human experience perfectly, and much of our book group meeting was spent reading sentences out loud to each other appreciatively. This passage was a favorite:
“The only problem with not talking to oneself was that oneself was the most fascinating conversational partner one could imagine. Nobody had more patience in listening to one than oneself, and while nobody knew one better than oneself, nobody misunderstood one more than oneself. But if talking to oneself was the ideal conversation in the cocktail party of one’s imagination, the crapulent major was the annoying guest who kept butting in and ignoring the cues to scram.”
There are other sources of humor mixed in among the horrifying and difficult events of the novel. A big one is when the Captain is hired by a Hollywood producer to be an advisor on a film about the Vietnam War (a thinly veiled reference to Apocalypse Now), to ensure authenticity. Of course, the Hollywood bigwig is more interested in pleasing his American audience than in actually portraying the Vietnamese people accurately (or even giving them any speaking parts), but the filming of the movie in the Philippines has many amusing moments.
There is so much meat to this novel – its beautiful writing, its historical setting, its political context – that our book group had plenty to talk about. Most of us agreed it was an incredible book and rated it between 7 and 9 out of 10. Some felt it moved along at a good pace, while others felt it was a difficult book to read, though ultimately worthwhile. One member only got about 50 pages in and decided not to finish it. We certainly had an in-depth and entertaining discussion, though we weren’t entirely sure we completely “got” the ending.
The Sympathizer is not just a novel about the Vietnam War. It is also about personal identity and the refugee experience, a topic of vital importance today. The narrator’s two faces, mentioned in the opening sentence, have multiple meanings. He is not only an undercover agent, serving two opposing political forces, he is also a refugee, with one foot in Vietnam and another in America, and he is also a bastard child (a big part of his identity), born of a Vietnamese mother and a French priest father. This deep emotional context along with a gripping and suspenseful story and the author’s beautiful prose make this a truly exceptional novel and well deserving of its many awards.
384 pages, Grove Press
Fresh Air's Terry Gross interviewed Viet Thanh Nguyen. He discusses the book, as well as his own history and experiences growing up in Vietnam and in the U.S. as a refugee. It's an excellent interview and very interesting. You can listen to this 35-minute interview online, download it, or read the transcript at the link above.
Here is a brief clip of the author on Late Night with Seth Meyers. He talks about his own experience as a refugee...and his wonderful sense of humor comes through as well.