One of my goals for 2018 is to be better about reading through the books I have lying around my home. Although I am pretty good about actually reading the books I accumulate, there are still a few books sitting on the shelf that I saw recently and couldn’t believe that I hadn’t read yet. The Sympathizer had been on my list of books I wanted to read for a while — particularly since I received this as a gift from my mother for Christmas 2016! I remember starting the novel and getting about a hundred pages into it, but had to drop it once coursework and work-work started up again. Fast-forward nearly two years and I finally finished it!
What I remember distinctly from the first time I began reading this novel, and once again with this subsequent read, was how dense Nguyen’s writing is. What I mean when I say dense is that the narrator seems to be talking a mile-a-minute throughout most of the book and the narrative style is one that is wordy, full of description, along with being full of philosophical, historical, and cultural asides that generally come in rapid succession. There is a lot to take in with this story and the narrator’s voice is pretty stylized — he reads as a bit film noir-y to me — so it took me a while to get used to his cadence and his voice. However, once I felt comfortable with the narrative style, I found the novel itself to be really fascinating and well done. I can definitely see why Nguyen received so much attention for this work.
What struck me the most about The Sympathizer was just how much Nguyen was able to cover. Granted, it is about 4oo pages long, so he did have plenty of space to work in — but I found he was able to balance between a wide range of ‘Asian’ experiences in the United States. For instance, the narrator is mixed; he is half-French and half-Vietnamese so he is able to act as the reader’s point of entry into Vietnamese culture, while also standing outside of it and experiencing the distrust (and cruelty) that people from both sides give to those of us who are mixed. I think that the liminality of the character allowed him to move through the narrative and interact with a number of different experiences from a Nissei Japanese character who feels disconnected from their ‘Japanese-ness’, to recent refugees who arrive in the United States, while also dreaming of being able to return to their country. The novel could have easily centered solely on one specific group but while Nguyen focuses on those who come to the United States in the wake of the Vietnam War, he also provides a wide depiction of what it means to be perceived as foreign — both in how the Vietnamese refugees see their new surroundings in the United States and how the various white characters read stereotypes or external narratives onto the non-white characters. Moreover, Nguyen does an awesome job of showing how most of the non-white characters use these stereotypes or forced-on narratives in their favor when possible and work against the system in order to move through society. Although these stereotypes are still limiting and ultimately are harmful to the non-white characters, they do what they can to use outside perceptions (even when blatantly incorrect) in their favor when they can. I liked the depiction of that expression of agency, which is something I have witnessed first hand and have experienced myself in both Western and Japanese contexts.
Another key element of the novel that I really enjoyed was the critical analysis of the relationship between the United States and Vietnam. I think that the United States has a very particular story in place for what happened in Vietnam, which is necessarily going to be one-sided. However, The Sympathizer presents the memory of Vietnam from the Vietnamese standpoint, which problematizes a lot of the narrative that comes out of the neoliberal Western approach. For instance, there are two passages in particular touching on this point that stood out to me in the novel. The first highlights the difference in political atmosphere from the narrator’s student days in the U.S. to when he returns as a refugee years later:
“I envied the students their naked political passion, for I had to submerge my own in order to play the role of a good citizen from the Republic of Vietnam. By the time I returned to campus, however, the students were a new breed, not interested in politics or the world like the previous generation. Their tender eyes were no longer exposed daily to stories and pictures of atrocity and terror for which they might have felt responsible, given they were citizens of a democracy destroying another country in order to save it. Most important, their lives were no longer at stake because of the draft.” — The Sympathizer, 61
Another cutting passage depicts the way that culture and art is often mobilized for political purposes, as the narrator takes note of while he works on a Hollywood film that is set in Vietnam during the war:
“The longer I worked on the movie, the more I was convinced that I was not only a technical consultant on an artistic project, but an infiltrator into a work of propaganda. A man such as [the director] would have denied it, seeing his Movie as Art, but who was fooling whom? Movies were America’s way of softening up the rest of the world, Hollywood relentlessly assaulting the mental defenses of audiences with the hit, the smash, the spectacle, the blockbuster, and yes, even the box office bomb.” —The Sympathizer, 172
There are also a number of passages that struck me simply for how Nguyen articulates things that are fairly universal in a way that is really direct and to-the-point, but remaining really beautifully written. For instance, one of my favorite passages from the book is as follows,
“One must listen to them carefully to understand that while pain is universal, it is also utterly private. We cannot know whether our pain is like anyone else’s pain until we talk about it. Once we do that, we speak and think in ways cultural and individual. In this country [the U.S.], for example, someone fleeing for his life will think he should call the police. This is a reasonable way to cope with the threat of pain. But in my country [Vietnam], no one calls the police, since it is often the police who inflict pain.” — The Sympathizer, 131
All of that being said, I think that Nguyen remains highly critical of taking a concrete “side” in the conversation about the Vietnam War because he critiques all parties that were involved and he highlights the suffering of victims themselves. I think he comes down harder and more cuttingly, obviously, on those whose ideologies deserve to be held accountable and picked apart, but since his narrator is neither here nor there (as most of us who are mixed end up being) Nguyen is able to move between such harsh critiques in a subtle and effective way to dissect the problems at the heart of the competing narratives. I think that is what I find most fascinating about Nguyen as a writer, particularly with this text: his ability to do so much in a surprisingly efficient and pared down way. Like I said earlier, the style of the text is a bit dense and, therefore, took a while to get used to. However, as you read through the novel, it becomes clear that Nguyen is doing the most he can in the most efficient way he can — which provides even more punch for a book that is already pretty hefty. Nguyen also folds in a bit of mystery and thrill in the text, too, as it is not clear from what position the narrator is narrating his story from; although readers get a sense that the narrative is happening in some amorphous “future” and that the narrator is recounting these past events, it isn’t clear until right near the end why he is where he is or who the narrative is for. The ending was therefore something that was gripping to work towards and, as the rest of the novel was, pretty thought-provoking once you make it to the end.
I was already pretty behind on reading this, but I am truly glad that I did finally get around to reading it. As someone who is always trying to find different historical perspectives, this fit the bill perfectly. If, like me, you haven’t gotten around to reading The Sympathizer and are interested in reading the effects of the Vietnam War from a non-U.S. standpoint (which I highly suggest), then I think this is a great contemporary novel to pick up.
*All quoted passages from: Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (New York: Grove Press, 2015)*