The Sympathizer is an elegantly written, beautiful, heartbreaking tale of conflicted loyalties and the never-ending battle between ideals and reality. As a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, it’s no surprise that the writing is absolutely gorgeous. The story itself is a fascinating look at the Vietnam war from a perspective not often found in American culture. In addition to tackling what the war was like for the Vietnamese who lived through it, Viet Thanh Nguyen also critiques how Americans rewrote the narrative for themselves. It is one of those seemingly rare situations, he notes, where the losers write the history.
The Sympathizer follows an unnamed narrator writing and rewriting his confessions for the commandant of a re-education prison in Vietnam. He is a self-described “spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” The child of a French priest and a Vietnamese teenager, our narrator has never quite fit in. He forges his own family with two friends, Man and Bon, and together become blood brothers as youths. Now as young adults, the war is testing their bonds. Man is an enthusiastic and dedicated supporter of Ho Chi Minh, fighting on the side of communist North Vietnam. Bon is just as dedicated in his loyalty to the non-communist South. Our narrator straddles the two as a Communist spy embedded with the South Vietnamese army. While appearing as the dedicated aide to a top South Vietnamese general, he actually works with Man, passing vital information to the North.
April of 1975, was, our narrator informs the Commandant “the cruelest month. It was the month in which a war that had run on for a very long time would lose its limbs, as is the way of wars. It was a month that meant everything to all the people in our small part of the world and nothing to most people in the rest of the world.”
For the North, it was the month of liberation, of victory. For the South and its American backers, it was the month of the Fall of Saigon, as desperate hordes of people crowded the American embassy and a famous picture of a line of evacuees climbed to the last helicopter to safety, if not necessarily freedom. Having lived the life of a spy for years, the narrator is looking forward with anticipation to this liberation. Unfortunately for him, the order is to accompany his general to the United States, maintaining his role as mole.
The story follows him to exile in California. He dutifully sends reports in invisible ink to Man regarding the General’s new plans to return to Vietnam as victors. At the same time, he is watching out for Bon, who evacuated with him and is anxious to liberate Vietnam from its liberators. In the interim, the narrator finds himself attached to a big movie director, rounding up extras for the director’s epic movie about Vietnam. Throughout it all, he is continually defined by his duality, his inability to never fully belong anywhere. No one actually knows him, with the exception of the voices of those he killed who never leave him.
The Sympathizer spares no one in its critiques. It is a critique of the U.S. North Vietnam. South Vietnam. Anti-war protestors. Warmongers in back rooms, ready to continue on the idea that a revolution could be flattened by enough artillery. As he writes his confession over and over again, his captors force him to critique himself as well. He must account for his actions – and inaction.
Our narrator is like Vietnam itself. Divided in half, bearing the legacy of French colonialism, loyal to friends on opposing sides of the conflict, desperately trying to protect the heart of it all, and caught in the wake of the churn of forces outside his control. Yet for all the horror, The Sympathizer is a beautiful, searing book.