The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen


I recommend this book to grey thinkers. Beware, those who read it looking for black and white answers about the Vietnamese War. The Sympathizer is a character study more than a war novel. Written as a confession, the narrator grapples with the Marxist dialectic to which he is indebted. He is a communist Viet Cong infiltrating the South Vietnamese army as a captain; he’s both thesis and antithesis. We never learn his name, nor the name of several characters. Rather than coming out on one side of the dialectic or the other, the captain falls between the cracks, or, rather, confesses the folly of the whole thought system, in the end calling for revolution of an unexpected sort.

As the bastard son of a French priest and a Vietnamese mother, the captain sees himself as half of everything. His mother calls him twice of everything. He’s English and Vietnamese bilingual (having lived in America as a college student) but doesn’t identify as American, nor as French. He loves women but can’t commit to one. He tells the tale of two murders he commits; instead of eradicating those he kills, those characters cling to him like sub-personalities. He’s either divided or he’s multiplied, but he’s definitely not one-dimensional.

The book turns more and more philosophical toward the end. When he’s captured by the Viet Cong during a plot by his General to re-start the war in Laos, he’s asked, “what’s more precious than independence and freedom?” He answers, “nothing.” This is not enough for his capturers. He edits and re-edits his confession for the Commissioner, but never to his satisfaction. He hasn’t gone far enough, he’s told. He confesses that while in America, he worked as a cultural attache to the Auteur of a film about the war, but fails to set the record straight about the plight of Vietnamese peasants. Nor does he kill his French father when he wishes him dead. His biggest crime is that of omission.

Spoiler alert: the answer to his torturers’ question is right in front of his nose. One of his torturers is his best friend. It is this, among other paradoxes, that allows our captain to see what he’d been missing. Commissioner/Man (who has two names to our narrator’s none) struggle for and against each other until finally the Commissioner sets the captain is free. The novel ends on a hopeful, yet joking note. The captain’s confession, as we have it, is complete, but he promises to keep writing as he heads back to America for the third time.

Many of us reading will never know what it’s like to be a spy, not Vietnamese nor the victim – as well as perpetrator – of torture. However, perhaps the most masterful device of the author’s was to give us readers an in: the nameless narrator/captain at the end becomes “we.” He could be any of us, or all of us. His story is not yet complete, and nor is ours. The revolution is in our hands.

Author: marilivtollefson

I teach and play violin when not reading and reviewing books. Thanks to indie authors for opening my world and sharing theirs! Find my reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, Kobo, Midwest Book Review and BookPage, among others.

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