Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer, Corsair paperback, 2016. First published in the USA, 2015

This is the harrowing story of the fall of Vietnam to the communist forces, and what followed. The ignominious evacuation of Saigon – a corrupt regime propped up by equally dodgy American military and covert forces fled in scenes realised dramatically here – was mirrored this summer in Kabul. Only those influential or rich enough to bribe their way onto the last planes to leave the airport made it – and not all of them survived.

Nguyen Sympathizer cover The narrative is in the form of a confession to his captors by a self-confessed ‘mole’, a communist spy embedded at the highest level of the Vietnamese military as it struggled to delay the inevitable collapse of the former colonial government. At the onset he emphasises his dual or split nature – an image that looms very significantly at the novel’s end.

He can sympathize with both sides of the conflict: his mother was Vietnamese, his father a French priest. He’s therefore seen with suspicion by the natives of the country he was born and brought up in, but equally by the Americans (he was educated in an American university and speaks perfect English) and Europeans.

The narrator’s final epiphany is breathtaking. The Sympathizer was a worthy winner of the Pulitzer in 2016. It was perhaps a little too long for my taste, and some of the scenes of violence, torture and rape are unpleasant, and I’m not sure they needed to be quite so graphically detailed. The novel packs a serious punch – but I can’t really say that ultimately I enjoyed it. Admired, perhaps.

On reflection I think it was partly the narrative voice that put me off, as well as the content, and excessive length (just short of 500 pp). There’s a whiff of the hard-bitten noir style of the Chandler school. This is in keeping with the covert nature of the mole’s life, his task to pose as something he’s not, which has the effect of creating for him an existential dilemma. Like a tough, embittered Chandler hero, he inhabits a nasty world in which nobody can be trusted or taken at face value, and he’s haunted by the victims of his duplicity.

The satiric section of the novel depicting the narrator’s role in the making of Coppola’s epic Vietnam film ‘Apocalypse Now’ was one of the best parts of the novel. He tries (and fails) to persuade the ‘auteur’ director to portray the Vietnamese characters as something more than ciphers – and pays a heavy price for his efforts.

I’ve started reading a Hardy novel – The Trumpet Major – in an attempt to break this run of unsuccessful reading experiences.


14 thoughts on “Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer

  1. I think this author has branched out further with “the hard-bitten noir style of the Chandler school” in the novel which followed this one.
    I admired The Sympathizer too and I borrowed the follow-up from the library but took it back unread. There are a lot of books knocking around about drug and alcohol addiction and none of them interest me at all.

    • Lisa: I suppose we assume the narrator picked up his linguistic tone from his years as a student in the States, so it’s perhaps a bit churlish to grumble about it. If the sequel is on the themes you mention I think I’m even less inclined than I already was to read more by this author.

  2. My heavens, Simon — you ARE on a roll here, aren’t you (LOL)? Does this mean you aren’t going to read Nguyen’s sequel, The Sympathizer (I think it’s called).
    I found your review very helpful. The literary establishment seemed very taken with this, hence the Pultizer. I’ve looked at it but have been more dubious; I’vebeen attempting to talk myself into reading it for the last 4 or 5 years. I think your review has settled it, at least for the next few years!
    On a different note, I noticed that I left two replies to one of your comments in a previous post. Mea culpa for cluttering up your blog! (I was having some technical problems there (comment disappeared so I repeated). If there’s some way you can delete one, please do so.

    • I’ve deleted one of your comments from the previous post. I noticed there were two, and assumed you’d had a problem with posting it – turns out you did. Good of you to take the trouble to try again! As for this novel: I didn’t know there was a sequel. I just don’t think this is a good time to read such harrowing stories.

  3. Oh dear, this does sound a hard one to take – I’d prefer to read nonfiction on a topic like this, I think. Though I did Roots, obviously. Hope you have more success with Hardy!

  4. Hello, Simon.

    This has been on my towering virtual “To Be Read” pile SINCE 2016. I really enjoy your wonderfully balanced observations. A couple of things:

    a.) “Apocalypse Now” shares my No. 1 spot for favorite film of all time with Aardman’s “Shawn The Sheep,” which seemed odd until a wit on Twitter made the point that both were classic “quests.” Viet’s satirical section here sounds to my taste. One observation is that “Apocalypse” is an adaptation of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” and Conrad’s world view is light years away from hard-boiled private eye fare or satire. Conrad definitely would have been in the “cipher” camp in terms of his view of “The Natives” as a somewhat fungible part of the background, with the vast amount of attention on “the colonizers.”

    b.) There are some wonderful documents on the making of “Apocalypse Now” that are very thoughtfully done.

    c.) Cheers!

    • I’m an admirer of A. Now as well. Viet, not surprisingly, is more caustic about the film and the auteur, as he unflatteringly calls FFC. Excellent use of ‘fungible’, btw. Cheers to you, too.

  5. Hello, it is Maureen again.

    I thought it might be an interesting exercise to write a piece comparing and contrasting “The Sympathizer” with Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American.”

    Finally, harkng back to “Apocalyse Now,” a re-cut of the film adds in a significant (over 30 minutes) section featuring the protagonist’s visit with a family of French planters still holding out in Viet Nam. Odd and surrealistic.

  6. I think tag of “auteur” is right on point here. “A Now” is not perfect, but IMHO, it is a great work of art, adapting another great work of art, Conrad’s novel. I can see why it might not be to everyone’s taste, though!

  7. This definitely sounds too heavy for me – I’m not good at violence at the best of times, and this does sound as if there’s a lot of it. It may be a realistic representation of what it was like at the time, but I suspect too graphic for me…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *