On May 12, 2017 my neighbors and I convened for our usual book group. We were discussing Viet Thanh Nyugen’s debut novel, The Sympathizer which is about the Vietnam War. The novel is a New York Times Bestseller and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the Andrew Carnegie Medal.
Our guest speaker, a historian, pointed out that the novel raised a lot of “What If” questions, resparking the debates of the time. He mentioned the film We Were Soldiers Once as a good compliment to the novel. There is a movie mentioned within the novel, Apocalypse Now, which is a classic metafictive move (mention of a work of fiction within the main work of fiction) on the author’s part. Our guest speaker highlighted that decisions were made on domestic and international politics, not on Vietnam itself.
The novel is composed of a spy’s confession. The confession is addressed to the “Commandant.” The first line feels reminiscent of the first lines of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground: “I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man.” Dostoyevsky’s character is also involved in the government. Thanh Nguyen’s nameless narrator begins thusly: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.” In both novels, the main character announces himself in short, perfunctory sentences that immediately expose his true nature and set the reader up for the intriguing plot that is to follow.
The nameless narrator in The Sympathizer was born out of wedlock to a Vietnamese mother and a white Catholic priest. Early on in the novel he notes that being a bastard loans itself to sympathizing with others. It is self-conscious to point that he returns to time and time again in the course of the complex narration, almost as if his ability to belong to two cultures and two languages is what created the spy within him.
The novel is structured elliptically. It begins with the introduction of the nameless narrator’s confession and ends with his interrogation that is presumed to have produced the confession which contains the entire plot. In between are his escape from Saigon, flashbacks to his love affairs, and the killings he undertook. He reflects on his time in Vietnam and in the United States. At times the narration becomes difficult to follow and the reader must pay close attention in order to avoid getting lost in the shuffle of events and details. The nameless narrator often interrupts himself without a change in the formatting of the text to indicate that there has been a shift in plot.
The author plays with questions of representation, such as when the narrator states, “I cannot help but wonder, writing this confession, whether I own my own representation or whether you, my confessor, do.” (page 194)
Given the nature of the novel it is not surprising that the aporia of time comes to the forefront as the narrator wishes to “to live long enough to smoke one more cigarette, drink one more drink, experience seven more seconds of obscene bliss, and then perhaps, but most likely not, I could die.” (page 307). This desire is reflective of the aporia of time because death robs us of the future. The narrator seems equally afraid to live and to die. He longs to experience the pleasures of life before death but he sees death as a release from his captivity.
Toward the end of the novel his captors finally inform him of the reason for his torture. They say he has forgotten something in his confession, reminding him that “Human memory is short, and time is long.” (page 330)
As a double play on the title of the novel, which I find essential to understanding the text as a whole, the narrator’s captors remind him, “We’re revolutionaries, my friend. Suffering made us. Suffering for the people is what we chose because we sympathized so much with their suffering.” (page 337, author’s emphasis)
The Sympathizer is a must read for anyone interested in war thrillers written with a touch of satire.