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The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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Replete with ambushes, betrayals, double agents, espionage, freedom fighters,
refugees, and taboo sex, Viet Nguyen’s debut novel The Sympathizer has what
readers have been trained to expect from war narratives and spy thrillers. However,
despite all that is to be expected, The Sympathizer is not a conventional war novel.
Nothing is as easy as “good guys” v. “bad guys” in this novel. The Sympathizer tells
the story of the Vietnam War from the point of view of a character who is, at turns, a
subversive, a foreign exchange student, a military captain, a Communist mole, a
motherless child, a refugee, a film consultant, and a prisoner of war. Known as “The
Captain” ,” the narrating protagonist occupies a position of multiplicity that makes
him the perfect character to see and narrate the story from all sides. In him, we are
given a narrator whose sympathies continually blur the lines and whose loyalties
ultimately become too complicated to disentangle, making it impossible to distinguish
between the heroes and the antiheroes.
Beginning just days before the fall of Saigon (or Black April), the novel opens with the
general’s begrudging acknowledgment of defeat. With America withdrawing its
military, financial aid, and evacuating its personnel, while facing the oncoming
invasion of Communist forces, the general, who is the head of the National Police force
in South Vietnam, plans a personal evacuation and charges the captain with deciding
who among the general’s extensive family, friends, officers and supporters will be
allowed a seat on the illegally obtained aircraft which seats only 92. The captain
prepares a list, selecting some and condemning others at random, knowing that those
left behind will face sure death. Despite observing that “Every stroke of my pen
through a name felt like a death sentence,” The captain nevertheless “worked and
reworked the list” impassively completing the “task of selecting a few men for
salvation and condemning many more, including some I liked.” The ambivalence with
which he makes life-and-death decisions underscores his complicated sympathies.
The bastard son of a peasant woman and a white French Catholic priest, the captain
is both illegitimate and mixed race. This heritage prepares him for a life of both duality
and invisibility, making him ideally suited to infiltrate the general’s forces while
spying for the Viet Cong. The captain’s upbringing on the margins of society primes
him to question and critique capitalism, yet his proximity to and engagement with
anticommunism supporters complicates his worldview, as does his stint at a
university in the United States. He comes to favor and depend on Western amenities
and customs, while simultaneously critiquing and indicting them—truly becoming a
man of two minds, two faces, and two sympathies, losing his own behind the mask he
has donned.
Amid a narrative that follows the anticommunist forces out of Saigon and over to Los
Angeles— where they secretly raise funds and spirits for a counterrevolution and a
return to Vietnam—the captain travels to the Philippines for a movie shoot, which on
its surface seems incongruous. Nguyen’s most sustained indictment is reserved for
the machine that is Hollywood. The captain is encouraged both by Communist and
anticommunist forces alike to serve as a technical consultant on a Vietnam War film
(à la Apocalypse Now) as a way of subversively undermining Hollywood’s efforts to stereotype people of color.Believing that his role as technical consultant is to ensure
accuracy, the commandant discovers that the auteur care little for cultural accuracy or
sensitivity. The auteur originally writes a script that fails to give the Vietnamese
characters any speaking roles, uses Filipinos and other non-Vietnamese actors for the
three Vietnamese leads, and relegates Vietnamese actors to play extra or bit roles as
Viet Cong villainsAs the captain remarks upon meeting “the auteur,” a filmmaker,
“His arrogance marked something new in the world, for this was the first war where
the losers would write history instead of the victors.” What ensues is a darkly comic
scenario. Believing his presence will make a difference and that his suggestions will
be respected, the captain’s earnest but futile efforts evoke the pathos of the battle royal
scene of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, in which the unnamed protagonist’s
earnestness meets with ridicule. The Sympathizer unceasingly indicts Western
assumptions and master narratives, as well as problems of cultural appropriation and
representation.
Though the novel begins with an emergency evacuation and the fall of Saigon, much
of its action takes place on American soil. Yet Americans deliberately appear mostly
as backdrop characters. By deliberately transforming the American characters into
“the Others” and subjecting them and their assumptions to cross examination,
Nguyen is subverting the idea of “the Other.” After telling the commandant a story in
which her boss, the chair of the department of Oriental studies, chastises her for not
learning to speak Japanese as a way to preserve her cultural heritage, the
commandant’s love interest, Ms. Mori, quips “Who cares? Did anyone ask John F.
Kennedy if he spoke Gaelic and visited Dublin or if he ate potatoes every night or if
he collected paintings of leprechauns?”
With few exceptions (for example, Claude, the captain’s white CIA ally), white
American characters who do appear in the novel are typically unnamed and are
instead described by their professions—the professor, the congressman, the auteur.
This is in deliberate and direct contrast to the numerous Vietnamese characters who
are given names, from the captain’s best friends Man and Bon, Bon’s son Duc, the
general’s daughter Lana, to Sonny, the captain’s rival for Ms. Mori. Strategically
reduced to their professions, the white American characters deliberately stand in as
faceless types, just as so many Asian and Asian-American characters have been
depicted as types or stand-ins in American films and narratives. Nguyen’s novel
works to disorient, or reorient, audiences who have identified with a master narrative
that has long gone unquestioned or disputed.

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Keywords:sympathizer, nguyen, replete, ambushes, betrayals, double, agents, espionage, freedom, fighters, refugees, readers, trained, expect, narratives, thrillers,
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