The Sympathizer was the surprise winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the debut novel of Vietnamese-American author Viet Thanh Nguyen, and if nothing else is a truly fascinating work of fiction for its new take on the Vietnam War. Nguyen’s unnamed narrator is a communist sympathizer and sleeper agent in the south of Vietnam, and recalls the conflict and its aftermath from the perspective of a Vietnamese national, as opposed to the countless looks back at the war from western perspectives (The Things They Carried, Tree of Smoke). The narrator himself is a walking dichotomy, born to a Vietnamese mother and French father (a priest, no less), living in the south and then in the U.S. while professing loyalty to the communists, with very bourgeois sentiments that compromise his work as a spy and an unwilling assassin.
The closest parallel I can think of for The Sympathizer is Graham Greene’s novel of Vietnam, The Quiet American, written later in his career after he’d become disillusioned with his country and his faith, a bleak picture of the war that included more than just a cursory consideration of the conflict’s devastating effect on the people of Vietnam. Nguyen’s look at the war is similarly derisive, suffused with parody and gallows humor, but ultimately an indictment of everyone involved, not least the United States.
The narrator tells his story as a confession to an unseen commandant and “faceless” commissar, as he’s apparently in a postwar Vietnamese reeducation camp despite serving the People’s Liberation Front during the conflict as a mole and assassin both in South Vietnam and then in the United States, where he works with a disgraced General from the South’s army who seeks to stage a Bay of Pigs-style invasion force that goes roughly as well as that real-life attempt did. His story involves time as a student in California, where he writes his thesis on the works of Graham Greene (in case you missed that allusion), as well as his work as a “consultant” on a thinly-disguised version of Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, itself an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad novella into a Vietnamese setting. The director, known only as the Auteur, is a fatuous, racist pig who fancies himself an artist and tries to work from a script that doesn’t give a single line to a Vietnamese character. The narrator’s job is to try to undermine the pro-American tone in the film, but the entire story turns into an elaborate farce of the film, the movie industry, and subsequent American attempts to retell the story of the war in terms that the American public would buy.
The last quarter of the book takes a sharp turn toward the more serious territory of Darkness at Noon or 1984 as we switch to real time and the narrator’s ordeal in custody, where, we learn, he’s been telling and retelling his story to his jailers, but hasn’t given them the particular truth they demand of him. The climax is graphic and hard to read, worse than the two assassinations in which the narrator takes part, but works better as a metaphor for the damage the North Vietnamese inflicted on their own people and the psychic scars that endured long after the conflict.
Nguyen can be a bit heavy-handed with the allusions and metaphors. The narrator’s two best friends are Man (the blank canvas) and Bon (the good one of the three). He encounters a go-getter journalist named Sonny, and an ice-cold Japanese woman named Ms. Mori (think memento mori). The Auteur and the older lead actor in the film border on caricature, while the film is called The Hamlet presumably because the Auteur views his work as comparable to Shakespeare. And the prose can get a little purple, although I found myself flying through it anyway.
But Nguyen’s strength lies in the main character, both as the vehicle for retelling the war’s story in a new light, and for his own dichotomy. The narrator is not truly accepted by his fellow citizens because he’s half European; he’s not accepted at all in the United States, even though he speaks perfect English, because he looks “foreign.” He lives in the South and serves in their military, but his loyalties are with the North … only to find himself in a communist (which was the North) political prison after the war. These splits all parallel the way his self was broken by an incident he witnessed during the war but has buried in his subconscious, the nauseating passage I mentioned above; only by reliving and acknowledging it can he move on with his life.
Next up: I actually just read Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows for the first time; I read a few chapters with my daughter, but she found it boring, so I finished it myself. At least now I know the true story behind Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.