I first became aware of this debut novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen when Jenn recommended it in the comments of my review of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which Nguyen has acknowledged as an influence. Like Ellison’s narrator, the narrator of The Sympathizer drifts from world to world, trying on different identities. He’s a South Vietnamese captain, a North Vietnamese spy, a filmmaker’s advisor, a driver, a soldier, and a prisoner. “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds,” the unnamed narrator writes in the opening of the book.
The book is his confession, written to a North Vietnamese commandant. He’s telling the story he believes his confessor wants to hear, but it’s not a story of a True Believer in the great cause. It’s the story of a man caught between worlds, born to a French father and Vietnamese mother, he’s never belonged. His two closest friends, are loyal to two different sides in the Vietnam War, and so he overtly claims loyalty to the South for his friend Bon while secretly taking orders from his friend Man from the North.
The bulk of the novel takes place in the latter years of the War and the period immediately after, when the narrator has escaped to America with the general he ostensibly serves. He sends coded messages back to Man by way of Man’s aunt in Paris. But for most of the book, there’s not much to report on. He spends time in the Philippines as an advisor to a film director he refers to as The Auteur as he films a movie about Vietnam called The Hamlet. There, he’s able to get Vietnamese people cast as extras in the film, but it doesn’t offer them much of an actual voice. (Ngyuen cites several books about Apocalypse Now in his acknowledgments.)
The narrator claims loyalty to Communism, but he rarely talks about his ideals or why he holds to them. I wondered if the claim of loyalty is for the sake of the confession. Perhaps, though, his loyalty is more about his friend Man that any political convictions. Very few of the narrator’s choices seem to be about political conviction. He does what he’s told—whether it’s to take a particular job or shoot a particular person. If he breaks orders, it’s to look out for a person he feels loyal to. When he shares his own views, it’s usually filtered in some way, in a letter to Man’s aunt or merely as part of the confession that the novel itself is supposed to be.
This technique serves to keep the reader at a distance, and, thus, as interested as I was by the story, I failed to ever feel strongly about the narrator and his plight. I was never quite sure what he himself felt. The distancing is, however, a necessary part of the novel, and a narrative with a strong political stance would provide a different and not necessarily better experience. And it’s not as if the narrator lacks personality. His voice isn’t as strong as that of the narrator of The Orphan Master’s Son, a novel that has a lot in common with this one, but it’s not bland either. There are even moments of humor, as when he describes the questioning of a possible spy for the Viet Cong:
He spent a week in the interrogation center being beaten black and blue, as well as red and yellow. By the end, our men were convinced that he was not a VC operative. The proof was incontrovertible, arriving in the form of a sizable bribe the man’s wife brought to the crapulent major. I guess I was mistaken, he said cheerfully, handing me an envelope with me share, It was equivalent to a year’s salary, which, to put it into perspective, was actually not enough to live on for a year. Refusing the money would have aroused suspicion, so I took it. I was tempted to use it for charitable activity, namely the support of beautiful young women hampered by poverty.
This is the
fourth third book that I’ve read that will be featured in the 2016 Tournament of Books. It’s probably my favorite so far, but that’s only because two of the books are A Little Life and Satin Island, neither of which I liked at all. I liked Ann Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread more as I reflected on it, so we’ll see if further thought affects my assessment of this book. Both are very well-done. But neither are books I’d consider absolutely near-perfect reads. Neither is entirely original nor absorbing. I’m not excited to root for either one. I’ll be reading Oreo by Fran Ross next. Perhaps it will be the one.