The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen is a story about a double agent working for his communist comrades in the United States after the fall of Saigon. The novel details the inner workings of a man with a shallow attachment to the United States, and a hidden one to the communist party. From first leaving Viet Nam, to then hiding out in Southern California, the protagonist secretly communicates with a childhood friend, Man, with all the intel he can recover from the American veterans after they left.
To try and not be discovered by his American counterparts, the protagonist has to go to great lengths of concealing who he actually is. These acts range from subtle things to more devastating event, like killing a mis-identified communist. While in America, the protagonist notes that many of the veterans come home without a purpose; they have become janitors, and shopkeepers and nothing what they believe themselves to be.
Then, to try and represent the Vietnamese people as best as possible, the protagonist agrees to help with the filming of a movie that occurs in the Philippines. Soon, the protagonist is caught up in both trying to portray his countrymen accurately and realizes the brutality of the film itself. Though, because of the duality of his identity, many of these contradictions are tossed away, as he believes that he is solely of communist blood.
The final act of the novel brings both the American veterans and the protagonist back to Viet Nam for one final and intense stand. The mentality of the veterans going felt that their dignity had been stripped of them and would much rather die on enemy soil than half-exist in America. However, this does not bode well for them as after a mine explosion, presumed to be set by the Americans years before, and a fire fight, the protagonist is captured.
After revealing his communist status to the prison camp, he is placed in isolation and forced to write a confession. The protagonist is utterly willing to give them as much as they want, but it is not enough for the commandant. Eventually, he is brought to the final stages of his torture, sleep deprivation, to elicit the true confession the prison camp leaders are looking for. It is also revealed that it is Man, his childhood friend, that is the protagonist’s torturer. And while at face value it seems like a betrayal, Man explains he is saving the protagonist. The torture, after an unexplainable amount of time, soon uncovers what the protagonist is unable to remember: a rape he witnessed. The protagonist, in his madman state soon understands the contradictory phrase: “while nothing is more precious than independence and freedom, nothing is also more precious than independence and freedom!” Upon his reeducation, the protagonist leaves the prison camp with one of the other survivors, Bon.
The novel is packed so heavily with imagery and metaphor that it is no surprise how intricate and meaningful each passage feels. Instances such as when the woman is being raped, her name is “Viet Nam”, which acts as metaphor for the Americans coming into Viet Nam and destroying and raping the land and people. Or the imagery of the protagonist tied to a mattress during his torture, plays right into the parallel of the image of his birth from his mother—essentially signifying his rebirth. The amount of complexities and issues the story manages to explain and intuit is both astonishing and commendable.
Death is a huge factor in The Sympathizer as well as the effects of war. The novel shows that first, no man can play both sides of a war and come out unscathed. The second is the question if someone is fighting another for independence and freedom, then certainly someone’s freedom is removed, in which case, that contradicts itself. And maybe, Nguyen was trying to hint at the unabashed contradictions of the fighting Americans. In doing so, Nguyen has brought a critical eye to the actions and events of the Americans during the Viet Nam war.
Final Rating: 5/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.