By Mona El Husseiny
This is a story about the weight of a double conscience.
“The Sympathizer emotionally invests the reader and takes them on a swerving road of war and refuge, evoking heightened sensations of sympathy, rage and grimacing shudders, with occasional respites of love, friendship and loyalty.”
If there is one thing that wars have proven over time; it is that history does indeed repeat itself, deeming all wars equally disastrous and tragic, uniting under the clouds of loss. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer is written in the form of a forced confession of a double agent, “a man of two minds”, who is pummeled by his timid conscience in the gruesome winds of war and dual allegiances. The story is written from the point of view of the protagonist, whose name remains anonymous throughout the entire book, causing the reader to develop a personal association with the character’s vivid narration.
The protagonist is a French-Vietnamese spy for the communists in North Vietnam who worked undercover as an assistant to a powerful general in South Vietnam. He manages to distressingly escape Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam, following its fall, and joins his fellow refugees in building a life in Los Angeles. He simultaneously sympathizes with the refugee community in LA and with his communist comrades in Vietnam, but most of all he sympathizes with himself: a bastard who was lovingly brought up by his Vietnamese mother and coldly neglected by his French colonialist father.
The book begins with climactic scenes describing the fall of Saigon and succeeds to instantly capture the reader’s attention. The author describes the transitory refugee camps and how the lives of his acquaintances and employers changed in contrast to their lavish lifestyle back home in Saigon. The protagonist suffers an identity crisis and finds himself caught between opposing polarities such as being a western versus an oriental, being loyal to his Communist superiors back in Vietnam while maintaining his secret identity among the Vietnamese generals, soldiers and C.I.A confidants in Los Angeles, and ultimately muffling the voice of his conscience as it incessantly plays a record of reprimand for the crimes he committed as a double-agent.
The author cleverly tackles other crucial issues, such as the role of Hollywood in manipulating the accuracies of the Vietnam War, when he writes, “For this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created”. Consistently, he highlights the strong bond between blood brothers and old friends in times of conflict, the romantic forbidden loves in between and the excruciating efforts one undertakes in neutralizing the heart and mind. The novel takes on an unexpected Orwellian turn towards the end that has the reader eagerly turning pages to get through the discomfort in a similar manner of quickly pulling off a bandage.
The Sympathizer is greatly influenced by Viet Thanh Nguyen’s life events. His parents grew up in North Vietnam and had to flee to the South in 1954. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, they fled to the United States when Nguyen was four years old after his mother’s maternal instinct led Viet and his brother to Saigon in order to meet their father. Once they arrived in the US, they were placed in a refugee camp and had to wait for a family to sponsor them. They were separated: Viet at 4 years old was sent to live with an American family, his parents were sent to a different family, and his brother to yet another one. Nguyen admits that it took him a long time to understand the traumatic effects that this short-lived, disturbing separation had on him. Such deep-rooted memories come to surface in candid expressions and heartfelt monologues that are poetically and sensitively highlighted throughout the book.
Published by Grove Press in 2015, The Sympathizer is the debut novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. It is the winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Edgar Award for Best Novel, the 2015 Center for Fiction First Prize, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction from the American Library Association, and more prestigious awards. It was also nominated and shortlisted for other awards, is a New York Times bestseller, and was named Best Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, among others.