Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015) The Sympathizer

The Washington Post called Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel ‘a classic of war fiction’. The New York Times a ‘tour de force’. Yes and Yes.

The narrator has written a confession. Looked out at the shore of himself. And decided there was nothing to see. What fuelled him wasn’t nihilism, but idealism. But that too was a lie. Something he was adept at. Being the bastard son of a priest. At fourteen, his Vietnamese peasant mother became the French father’s housekeeper and mistress. His father was also his teacher at the school he attends. Here he becomes blood brothers with two other boys, Bon and Man. The Three Musketeers that take on the world.

The Symapthizer tells the reader he is not to be trusted. The first line:

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.

Man is also two-faced. Like the narrator and Bon, he is a soldier in the South Vietnamese Army fighting against Ho Chi Minh and the Communists in the North. But he is also a commissar in the People’s Republic and an anti-revolutionary revolutionary. Man is the narrator’s interrogator and torturer, but also father confessor and his handler that he passes information to. He sets out to save him. Bon, in contrast, is a simple killer who does not know of his fellow Musketeer’s identities. He does as he’s told by the General (and people like him) and asks no questions about choosing the right or wrong side of history.

April 1975. American forces are leaving Saigon. It is easy to compare, for example, July 2021. American (and British) forces leaving Kabul.

‘The month in question was April, the cruellest month.’

The narrator, is no T.S.Eliot, but a Captain the South Vietnamese Army. Saigon is The Waste Land. The captain’s superior officer, The General, whose villa he stays in, instructs him to prepare a list of people that are going back to America with the retreating troops. He has been educated in an American College and lived in both worlds. They could not take everybody, but only those that mattered and those that could pay a sufficiently high bribe to get into the compound and board a flight.

‘We could not believe that the pleasant, scenic coffee towns of Ban Me Thout, my Highlands hometown, had been sacked in early March. We could not believe that president Thieu, whose name begged to be spat out of the mouth, had inexplicably ordered our forces defending the Highlands to retreat. We could not believe that Da Nang and Nha Trang had fallen, or that our troops had shot civilians in the back as they fought madly to escape on the barges and boats, the death toll running to thousands.’      

They could not believe it, but they did believe it. Their American allies dropped more bombs on Vietnam than all the bombs dropped in the second world war (excluding nuclear weapons) but received the refugees like flotsam, inexplicably washed up on their shore. The Captain went to live in Los Angeles with his commanding officer, the general. He had no army to lead, but acted like a man in charge, plotting to return to his lost homeland.

Bon and the Captain room together. They fall into line with their fellow exiles. It’s a life of sorts. Bon, for example, qualifies for welfare payments with money paid in cash for a job as a janitor in the black economy. Their low status makes the general bristle. Women coped better as refugees. The general’s wife, for example, opens a Vietnamese restaurant. Home cooking her speciality, even though she never cooked at home.  The Captain even begins an affair with the general’s daughter.  

Their world had turned upside down and the general wants to turn it back. His plans to invade Men who believe the yellow man is inferior, but communism is unforgiveable in any language, backed his plans to re-invade Vietnam.

The Captain reports these developments back to his handler in Paris. Bon has seen enough of America and Americans and their so-called freedom to know it is not for him. He opts of join the revolutionary force that aims to overthrow the revolutionary force, but really, it’s about returning home. The Captain goes with him, even though he’s warned by his handler, Man, not to. To stay in America, where his expertise would be of greater use. But he disobeys his order and goes with Bon to save Bon.

The confession of a confession is an examined life. The Captain has to explain to his superiors why he did what he did. What his faults were. He hand writes 352 pages and rewrites them again and again (for you, the reader). But it’s not enough. Something is missing. He has to find that part of himself and show his sorrow in a way that is appropriate without know why.

He ponders the problem of Spartacus. What do revolutionaries do when they win their revolution? Do they, for example, like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, learn to walk on two legs? And life for those that follow becomes worse rather than better in the planned utopia? His solution is to have no solution, but simply mark the fault line between ideas and idealism. Here be dragons. In losing his tortured mind, becoming two minded, he finds there are no answers. We are closer to nihilism at the end of the book than at the beginning, when idealism was not interrogated, but also closer to hope there may be an answer.    

Viet Thanh Nguyen, Yes and Yes. Read on.