Books

Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Sympathizer

“The best kind of truth,” observes the narrator of The Sympathizer, “[is] the one that meant at least two things.” The illicit son of a young Vietnamese woman and a European priest, he is also a communist mole working for the General, the man who runs South Vietnam’s secret police. He is even a true sympathiser in two senses of the word: pro-communist on the one hand, and capable of feeling the sorrow and pain of others on the other. 

None of this is easy, and he drinks to deal with the tensions and conflicts that come with his background, his job and his beliefs: “Besides my conscience,” he notes, “my liver was the most abused part of my body.” (Following one particularly nihilistic bender, he wakes up “in the perineum of time between the very late hours of the evening and the very early hours of the morning”.) 

A man as divided as his country, the unnamed narrator is also torn by his allegiance to his two sworn brothers, Man and Bon. They came together in response to an act of schoolyard bullying against the narrator (ostracised by other boys for being a “bastard” – another word with at least two meanings) when they were students of 14. Then, they cut the palms of their hands and mingled their blood, swearing to die for one another if necessary. Later the bookish Man, convinced that only communism can save Vietnam, joins the revolutionary underground. At the same time, the murder of his father by the Vietcong moulds Bon into a militant anti-communist. 

The narrator is caught in the middle, his political sympathies are with Man and the revolution; indeed, as a spy, he takes orders from Man. But his personal sympathies lie with the tortured Bon. Bon suspects nothing; as far as he is concerned, the narrator is a politically impeccable ally as well as a blood brother. For his part, the narrator loves both Man and Bon equally; they are, in a sense, his true country.

 The story of The Sympathizer begins on the eve of the fall of Saigon. The General’s wife is demanding that her husband organise a plane for their inevitable evacuation from the city. They will take refuge in the United States. In the end, the General will agree, although he has no illusions about his government’s allies. “Americans liked seeing people eye to eye,” he remarks to the narrator, “especially as they screwed them from behind.” 

To the narrator’s surprise, Man orders him to accompany the General to the US, where he will continue his work as a spy. He ensures that Bon and his wife and baby are on the flight as well. But when the Vietcong attack the airport, things go very badly and the narrator does not spare us the grief of detail here. We quickly come to understand that his irrepressible black humour draws from the relentless blackness of experience.

In the US, he continues to report back to Man on the plans concocted by the General and his American supporters to retake their homeland. The once powerful General opens a liquor store and his wife, who never lifted a finger back in Saigon – servants took care of everything – opens
a Vietnamese restaurant. 

The narrator gets a clerical position in a university department of “Oriental Studies”, where he meets the enchantingly severe Ms Mori and works for a professor who “had hung an elaborate Oriental rug on his wall, in lieu, I suppose, of an actual Oriental” and who prominently displays in his office a family photo containing the impeccable Asian studies credential of a (much younger) Chinese wife. “As no one on the faculty possessed any knowledge of our country,” writes the narrator, “the Chair enjoyed engaging me in long discussions of our culture and language.”

Later, he takes a temporary position as adviser to a famous Hollywood director who is making a film about Vietnam. Like many other characters – the General, “the crapulent major”, “the philosophical medic” – “the Auteur” is never named. But as Viet Thanh Nguyen states in the acknowledgements, “the inspiration for the Movie can hardly be a secret” – it is Apocalypse Now and the Auteur is a wickedly hilarious caricature of Francis Ford Coppola. 

The “greatest special effect” of the screenplay, the narrator observes, “was neither the blowing up of various things nor the evisceration of various bodies, but the achievement of narrating a movie about our country where not a single one of our countrymen had an intelligible word to say”. He persuades the resentful Auteur to add a few roles for Vietnamese. The Auteur admits that the narrator is the first Vietnamese he’s met; still, he asserts with more than a touch of aggression, imagination beats authenticity. 

The Auteur even insists on casting a Filipino for the lead Vietnamese role. The narrator pities the French for thinking they actually “had to visit a country in order to exploit it. Hollywood was much more efficient, imagining the countries it wanted to exploit”. It is not long before it is war between the megalomaniac Auteur and the narrator – and things, literally, blow up between them. (“Perhaps I went too far when I invited him to perform fellatio on me,” the narrator admits, “but he also went too far in threatening to kill me.”)

This epic, allegorical tale, by turns devastating and hilarious, sometimes both at once, is framed as a confession. We learn early on that somehow, the narrator is back in Vietnam and has ended up as a prisoner of the communists whom he has so loyally served. As he unravels the tale of his past, he himself moves ever closer to both his country’s and his own “heart of darkness”. The telling may drive him towards madness, but, as he tells us, “We have nothing to leave to anyone except these words, our best attempt to represent ourselves against all those who sought to represent us.” CG

Little, Brown, 384pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 21, 2015 as "Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CG