The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen is a fascinating novel about a Viet Cong spy who was an aide to a general in the South Vietnamese army. The spy is writing this memoir from his prison cell as a confession, although it is not clear whose prison he is in. Did the Americans discover the aide and convict him as a spy, or did the communists arrest him as an anti-revolutionary for being too close to the Americans?
It begins just as the Americans are evacuating Saigon. The communists order the spy to accompany the general when general flees to The United States. It may seem there is no point in this. After all, the communists had won the Viet Nam war, so who cares about a fleeing losing general? However, the communists were very worried that the South Vietnamese who fled to America would join together and try to re-invade Vietnam. Therefore, the spy was sent to discover what plots were being hatched in America.
However, the spy soon discovers that America for Vietnamese refugees is far stranger than anything he could have imagined. For one thing, there was really no place where they fit in. He finds that that,
” The majority of Americans regarded us with ambivalence, if not outright distaste, we being living reminders of their stinging defeat. We threatened the sanctity and symmetry of a white and black America whose yin and yang racial politics left no room for any other color…”
Thus begins a communist’s spy’s strange travels through the maze of American society and politics. The Sympathizer is wonderfully written and won both a Pulitzer Prize and an Andrew Carnegie Medal For Excellence In Fiction.
Viet Thanh Nguyen himself was born in Vietnam but grew up in America. His writing captures the odd absurdities related to the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese refugee experience. In some ways The Sympathizer treats the Vietnam war the way Joseph Heller treated World War II in Catch-22. He points the weird and humorous experiences without minimizing the overall tragedy and violence.
The Sympathizer points out that the final American retreat from Vietnam was such a farce it is almost impossible to believe. On April 28, 1975 President Gerald Ford gave the order for the final American evacuation of Vietnam. Previously all field commanders had been given secret orders that the signal for this would be when American Armed Forces Radio played Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. As soon as that was played all American forces were to get out of the country as fast as possible.
However, when the final order came from President Ford, no one at the radio station could find a copy of the record. Finally, someone was able to locate a Tennessee Ernie Ford version of White Christmas and that was played. American commanders in the field were totally confused since almost no one had ever heard this version, and no one was sure if this was the evacuation signal or not. This event actually happened. As hard as Americans would like to forget the Vietnam War, the entire war seemed to be nothing but one mistake like this after another.
The Sympathizer switches back and forth between flashbacks of the war and Vietnamese life in post-war America. Both venues are fascinating.
There have been a huge number of books and movies about the Vietnam War. However, The Sympathizer is one of the few from the point of view of the Vietnamese who fled to America at the end of the war.
Unlike other immigrant groups who came to America, the Vietnamese never ended up having a large political impact. Well-meaning American charitable organizations helped Vietnamese find housing and jobs all over the United States. While this seems nice, it also meant that the Vietnamese were spread too thin to be politically important anywhere. Compare this to the Irish immigrants of an earlier century, who stayed in large numbers in New York City. This allowed the Irish to eventually dominate the New York City police force, create a political machine and get many Irish-American mayors elected. Later Italian immigrants became a political force in New York and New Jersey. To this day, Italian-Americans are the largest ethnic group in New Jersey and have major political influence.
As The Sympathizer progresses, the Communist Spy (who does not mention his own name). Begins to realize that the Communist takeover of South Vietnam may not be the paradise he had dreamed of. As more and more Vietnamese refugees arrive in America, he hears stories of the atrocities that the new Communist rulers are imposing back in Vietnam. The spy also begins to see the psychological toll the relocation to a new land is having on the refugees. A man who was a General in the South Vietnamese Army is now just a liquor store manager. Another brave man who was a decorated Special Forces Captain now pumps gas all day and gets drunk each night. The Spy knows that these men fought against Communism, but he still feels sorry for their loss of dignity.
The Spy admits that his great strength as a human is also his greatest weakness as a spy. He has the ability to see all sides of every issue. This a wonderful attitude for a philosopher, but dangerous one for a man who is supposed to be a Communist zealot.
We highly recommend The Sympathizer, and hope you enjoy it.