Replete with ambushes, betrayals, double agents, espionage, freedom fighters, refugees, and taboo sex, Viet Nguyen’s debut novel The Sympathizer has what readers have been trained to expect from war narratives and spy thrillers. However, despite all that is to be expected, The Sympathizer is not a conventional war novel.
Nothing is as easy as “good guys” v. “bad guys” in this novel. The Sympathizer tells the story of the Vietnam War from the point of view of a character who is, at turns, a subversive, a foreign exchange student, a military captain, a Communist mole, a motherless child, a refugee, a film consultant, and a prisoner of war. Known as “The Captain” ,” the narrating protagonist occupies a position of multiplicity that makes him the perfect character to see and narrate the story from all sides. In him, we are given a narrator whose sympathies continually blur the lines and whose loyalties ultimately become too complicated to disentangle, making it impossible to distinguish between the heroes and the antiheroes.
Beginning just days before the fall of Saigon (or Black April), the novel opens with the general’s begrudging acknowledgment of defeat. With America withdrawing its military, financial aid, and evacuating its personnel, while facing the oncoming invasion of Communist forces, the general, who is the head of the National Police force in South Vietnam, plans a personal evacuation and charges the captain with deciding who among the general’s extensive family, friends, officers and supporters will be allowed a seat on the illegally obtained aircraft which seats only 92. The captain prepares a list, selecting some and condemning others at random, knowing that those left behind will face sure death. Despite observing that “Every stroke of my pen through a name felt like a death sentence,” The captain nevertheless “worked and reworked the list” impassively completing the “task of selecting a few men for salvation and condemning many more, including some I liked.” The ambivalence with which he makes life-and-death decisions underscores his complicated sympathies.
The bastard son of a peasant woman and a white French Catholic priest, the captain is both illegitimate and mixed race. This heritage prepares him for a life of both duality and invisibility, making him ideally suited to infiltrate the general’s forces while spying for the Viet Cong. The captain’s upbringing on the margins of society primes him to question and critique capitalism, yet his proximity to and engagement with anticommunism supporters complicates his worldview, as does his stint at a university in the United States. He comes to favor and depend on Western amenities and customs, while simultaneously critiquing and indicting them—truly becoming a man of two minds, two faces, and two sympathies, losing his own behind the mask he has donned.
Amid a narrative that follows the anticommunist forces out of Saigon and over to Los Angeles— where they secretly raise funds and spirits for a counterrevolution and a return to Vietnam—the captain travels to the Philippines for a movie shoot, which on its surface seems incongruous. Nguyen’s most sustained indictment is reserved for the machine that is Hollywood. The captain is encouraged both by Communist and anticommunist forces alike to serve as a technical consultant on a Vietnam War film (à la Apocalypse Now) as a way of subversively undermining Hollywood’s efforts to stereotype people of color.Believing that his role as technical consultant is to ensure accuracy, the commandant discovers that the auteur care little for cultural accuracy or sensitivity. The auteur originally writes a script that fails to give the Vietnamese characters any speaking roles, uses Filipinos and other non-Vietnamese actors for the three Vietnamese leads, and relegates Vietnamese actors to play extra or bit roles as Viet Cong villainsAs the captain remarks upon meeting “the auteur,” a filmmaker, “His arrogance marked something new in the world, for this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors.” What ensues is a darkly comic scenario. Believing his presence will make a difference and that his suggestions will be respected, the captain’s earnest but futile efforts evoke the pathos of the battle royal scene of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, in which the unnamed protagonist’s earnestness meets with ridicule. The Sympathizer unceasingly indicts Western assumptions and master narratives, as well as problems of cultural appropriation and representation.
Though the novel begins with an emergency evacuation and the fall of Saigon, much of its action takes place on American soil. Yet Americans deliberately appear mostly as backdrop characters. By deliberately transforming the American characters into “the Others” and subjecting them and their assumptions to cross examination, Nguyen is subverting the idea of “the Other.” After telling the commandant a story in which her boss, the chair of the department of Oriental studies, chastises her for not learning to speak Japanese as a way to preserve her cultural heritage, the commandant’s love interest, Ms. Mori, quips “Who cares? Did anyone ask John F. Kennedy if he spoke Gaelic and visited Dublin or if he ate potatoes every night or if he collected paintings of leprechauns?”
With few exceptions (for example, Claude, the captain’s white CIA ally), white American characters who do appear in the novel are typically unnamed and are instead described by their professions—the professor, the congressman, the auteur. This is in deliberate and direct contrast to the numerous Vietnamese characters who are given names, from the captain’s best friends Man and Bon, Bon’s son Duc, the general’s daughter Lana, to Sonny, the captain’s rival for Ms. Mori. Strategically reduced to their professions, the white American characters deliberately stand in as faceless types, just as so many Asian and Asian-American characters have been depicted as types or stand-ins in American films and narratives. Nguyen’s novel works to disorient, or reorient, audiences who have identified with a master narrative that has long gone unquestioned or disputed.