The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Don’t bother reading all the blurbs that go with the paperback edition of this book (The Sympathizer, Grove Press, 382 pages). Just read the first page; already you know you are in the presence of a talented writer. Here’s how we begin:

“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.”

We are not surprised later to learn that the narrator—never named, known only as the Captain—loves Russian novels, for this first paragraph recalls the beginning of Dostoevsky’s “Notes from the Underground,” featuring one of the most perverse split-personality ironist narrators in the history of world literature: “I’m a sick man . . . I’m a spiteful man. Unpleasant is what I am as a man. I think my liver is diseased. But then, I don’t know jack squat about my illness, and probably don’t even know what hurts where. I don’t seek treatment, and never have, although I respect medicine and doctors.”

Although he is not up in your face as forcefully as is Dostoevsky’s narrator, the Captain is in a similar limbo, living the life of in-between—neither fish nor fowl. Early in his career Dostoevsky wrote “The Double,” featuring a man who literally splits into two, and he was by far not the first European writer to air out the theme of the bifurcated psyche. So here we are, in a novel of the twenty-first century, reaching back into a grand tradition in Western literary art: the theme of the split, the two in one. This is the major theme of The Sympathizer.

The Captain was born bifurcated, and nobody among the Vietnamese who surround him has ever let him forget it. He is “the bastard,” illegitimate son of a Vietnamese mother and a French father, who is a Catholic priest to boot. He is a mixture of the Occident and the Orient. He has lived and studied in the U.S., has an excellent grasp of English and vast insights into American culture. Throughout the novel he seeks a resolution to his bifurcation. He never finds it, and at the end he is just as mixed up and split as he was at the beginning.

The theme is not all-inclusive, but, nonetheless, quite broad. Take Abe, the uncle of the Captain’s Japanese-American mistress (another character living, in her own unique way, with the split). Abe was born Japanese in the U.S., put in an interment camp during W.W. II. After the war, seeking his true identity, he went back to live in Japan, where no one accepted him as Japanese. Neither fish nor fowl.

As the action of the novel begins, we learn that the bi-racial Captain has made one big decision for political oneness. He does not waver between backing the South Vietnamese government, with its American ally, in the war against communism, or backing the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese communists. He has chosen communism, and he works to further the cause of communism throughout the whole novel. But the job he has chosen—sleeper agent—forces him to lead a double life, be an actor perpetually playing a role: “sometimes I dreamed of trying to pull a mask off my face, only to realize that the mask was my face.” Now he knows how Vladimir Putin must feel. As we shall see, he also shares with Putin some views on American foreign policy.

The Captain’s story is intertwined with that of his two blood brothers, fast friends since childhood. One of them, Bon, whose father was murdered by the communists, is a staunch supporter of the South Vietnamese government. The other, Man, like The Captain, fights to liberate the country from the Americans and South Vietnamese. As the action begins, in 1975, Saigon is about to fall to the North Vietnamese troops, while the Americans and their allies—including Bon, The Captain, and The General, the man whom The Captain works for, and spies against—are in full flight back to the U.S.

A large part of the novel’s action is set in California in the seventies, where the expatriate Vietnamese military men end up, and where they plot to return home and overthrow the communists. The Captain goes on ostensibly working as aide to The General, while sending back coded messages to his handler Man in Vietnam. As the title tells us, he is a communist sympathizer. Then again, he professes sympathy as well for “the enemy”: “I confess that after having spent my whole life in their company I cannot help but sympathize with them, as I do with many others. My weakness for sympathizing with others has much to do with my status as bastard.” Later the General asks him, “Do you know what your problem is?” Like all people who ask that question, he answers it himself: “You’re too sympathetic.” As we learn in the final part of the book, the communists who have taken over Vietnam will tell him exactly the same thing.

Then again, the sympathizer is, at many points in the book, not very sympathetic at all. He is personally responsible for the murder of two innocent men in America, and later we learn that he is obliquely responsible for the murder of his own father. As in The Brothers Karamazov—mentioned by name in The Sympathizer—we have the theme of parricide. But even more to the point, Dostoevsky’s final novel airs out the theme of bifurcation and the theme of guilt. It turns out that we are all, to one degree or another, guilty, and that’s what Viet Thanh Nguyen is telling us as well. In the words of Claude, the CIA agent who trains the narrator in interrogation techniques, “Innocence and guilt. These are cosmic issues. We’re all innocent on one level and guilty on another. Isn’t that what Original Sin is all about?” The Captain’s blood brother Man, handler of his sleeper/spy activities, makes exactly the same point: “Of course men will die . . . . . But they aren’t innocent. Neither are we, my friend. We’re revolutionaries, and revolutionaries can never be innocent. We know too much and have done too much.”

This is a book about Original Sin, which receives frequent mention by the narrator, who is laden in his own mind with sin: “I was impure, and impurity was all I wanted and all I deserved.” Brought up as a Catholic, with his father, the priest, force-feeding him in the dogma of Catholicism as a boy, the Captain—now a professed atheist and communist—can’t totally shuck off his Catholic guilt. The two men he has murdered in the U.S. return to him as ghosts and haunt him on a daily basis.

For a book professing to be about Vietnam the theme of America is dominant. The Captain appears to both love and hate the U.S. simultaneously, and here we have another bifurcation. The whole book reeks with Anti-American thoughts and sentiments. “America, land of supermarkets and superhighways, of supersonic jets and Superman, of supercarriers and the Super Bowl! America, a country not content simply to give itself a name on its bloody birth, but one that insisted for the first time in history on a mysterious acronym, USA, a trifecta of letters outdone later only by the quartet of the USSR. Although every country thought itself superior in its own way, was there ever a country that coined so many ‘super’ terms from the federal bank of its narcissism, was not only superconfident but also truly superpowerful, that would not be satisfied until it locked every nation of the world into a full nelson and made it cry Uncle Sam?”

Understandably, The Captain cannot forgive the U.S. for coming to Vietnam to, ostensibly, save the country and then killing three million people and leaving, having saved nothing and nobody. Furthermore, he is rankled by the narrative of the war, perpetuated by Hollywood, which tells only of American glory. This is “the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created” (Hollywood).

“Nothing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence.” Here we get into the issue of American exceptionalism and the self-appointed role of America as policeman of the world, which is Vladimir Putin’s primary beef with the U.S. today.

Resident in America, the General’s wife makes clear her opinion of the country that has given her shelter, stressing “the lewdness and the shallowness and the tawdriness Americans love so much.” After being given a hero’s welcome in the U.S.A. upon his expulsion from the Soviet Union, the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—to the chagrin of his freedom-loving hosts—made a series of such remarks in his speeches, and I have frequently heard Russian immigrants speaking in the same vein. American the Beautiful is often American the Ugly to them. Or America the Stupid. Looking for more endearments? Here are two others (in a book teeming with them): (1) “the Disneyland ideology followed by most Americans, that theirs was the happiest place on earth;” (2) “As the crapulent major said, A man doesn’t need balls in this country, Captain. The women all have their own.” As a life-long American, I read the plethora of criticisms in The Sympathizer and must admit, alas, their credibility. Even when The Captain asserts that it’s against the law to be unhappy in America. “If I was unhappy, it would reflect badly on me, for Americans saw unhappiness as a moral failure and thought crime.” Too true.

Finally, on page 280, the Captain—on his way out of the country and back to Vietnam—gets around to saying a few good things about the U.S.A. “I thought with regret about all the things I would miss about America: the TV dinner; air-conditioning; a well-regulated traffic system that people actually followed; a relatively low rate of death by gunfire, at least compared with our homeland; the modernist novel; freedom of speech, which, if not as absolute as Americans liked to believe, was still greater in degree than in our homeland; sexual liberation; and, perhaps most of all, that omnipresent American narcotic, optimism, the unending flow of which poured through the American mind continuously, whitewashing the graffiti of despair, rage, hatred, and nihilism scrawled there nightly by the black hoodlums of the unconscious.” Good writing there, but the whole book has sentences like that. Nice.

Then again, the novel is about human bifurcation, so it is only natural that the narrator who hates America also to some degree loves America. In the latter part of the book he arrives back in his homeland, in the company of a group of former South Vietnamese soldiers trying to establish a foothold for a new anti-communist revolution. They are captured by the communists, and now comes the greatest irony in the novel. The sleeper agent, who has worked tirelessly in aid of communism, is not received with open arms. He is stuck into a re-education labor camp, where he is given the opportunity to write a confession, in an effort to purify his soul—badly tainted by Western culture. To do, in effect, the impossible: re-educate himself out of his double nature.

That confession, prepared for the commandant of the camp, comprises the first 307 pages of the book. In the eyes of the communist true believers the Captain’s manuscript is blasphemy. Too many good things, it seems, have been said about the West, too much complexity pervades the pages, no revolutionary slogans have been voiced, even beloved Uncle Ho Chi Minh is mentioned but once. The Captain, so it turns out, is too complicated to be a true revolutionary. True revolutionaries oversimply life’s realities—wiping out all the grays and making them into blacks and whites. But the Captain in his bifurcation is the epitome of gray. Here’s a hypothetical dialogue between him and the commandant.

–Okay, who are you?

–Me, myself, and I.

–Right. You are you yourself and you, but you’re not allowed to be all those. Choose one.

–But how can I choose between me, myself, and me? If I do that, I won’t be truly me, myself, and I anymore.


(Actually, it’s somewhat easier for the Captain—but still impossible—he has to choose only between me and myself.)

What is the first thing that the Grand Socialist Revolution always has to do? Kill off the intellectuals, for the Revolution wants people chanting slogans, but certainly not thinking. “I believed in these slogans,” says the Captain, “but I could not bring myself to write them.” Not really true. He does not believe in the simpleminded slogans of Socialism. He is too intelligent to be a believer in the revolution, and deep down he senses why the Socialist Revolution never works. Revolutionaries think they know something that is really unknowable: who “the people” are for whom they fight. “Like salmon that instinctively knew when to swim upstream, we all knew who the people were and who were not the people. Anyone who had to be told who the people were was not [could not be] one of the people.” The Captain, deep down, is an intellectual, one of those stubborn, reactionary types who will tell you the truth: the whole idea of “the people” is a vast oversimplification and a fraud. Nothing on earth is really black or white; everything is gray. And “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” as Emerson is quoted in this book as saying.

At the end of the book the Captain is put through the same torture methods that the CIA once taught him way back when: sensory deprivation and sleep deprivation. He must learn the error of his ways and be, finally, re-educated to become a true Socialist believer. Of course, the bifurcated man cannot be put back together; he will always be what Dostoevsky’s hero is in “Notes from the Underground”: the man with the disease of hyper-consciousness, he who sees the many sides of any issue, too intelligent for his own good. The main thing he has learned through a lifetime of experience as a sleeper agent is that when the French left, and then when the Americans left, the Vietnamese were not finished with being given the shaft; they began “f….ing themselves now.” Even the narrator’s blood brother Man, the most intelligent character and, at one time, a true believer, ultimately comes to the conclusion that the revolution has failed.

Like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, The Captain, for all of his apparent efforts to work his way out of his bifurcation, is the eternal rebel, whose allegations that his doubleness dooms him to an alien life are not that believable. He assumes that, as half breed, marriage has been denied to him for all time. But certainly in America—with his excellent knowledge of English and American mores—he could make a marriage if he wished. Bastardy hardly limits one in the U.S., where huge numbers of children are born out of wedlock, and where The Captain could function well in a miscegenated society. Why does he not consider such a move? Because he loves his loneliness, he adores his status as misfit, he revels in the alienation. Incapable of love for anyone but his now dead mother and his three blood brothers, he has no desire to make any accommodation with a woman.

In a kind of deus ex machina ending, Man, now a communist commissar, arranges for the Captain and Bon to escape from Vietnam with the boat people. Even if they survive the journey, we wonder where they will end up. The Captain has burned his bridges in the U.S., having committed a murder (of the character Sonny) just before leaving the country. He will be the prime suspect in that murder, so he cannot return to the beloved/hated U.S. At the end of the novel the man in limbo finds himself in even a physical liminality: he is the eternal displaced person, with no country to call home.

The Sympathizer is full of so many brilliantly written passages that you feel like quoting everything in full. The author has a way of writing set scenes with a mass of accumulated detail. Here are selections from a long passage describing the many fates of the Vietnamese immigrants in the U.S.: “the naïve girl who flew to Spokane to marry her GI sweetheart and was sold to a brothel, and the widower with nine children who went out into a Minnesotan winter and lay down in the snow on his back with mouth open until he was buried and frozen, and the ex-Ranger who bought a gun and dispatched his wife and two children before killing himself in Cleveland, . . . . .  and the devout Buddhist who spanked his young son and was arrested for child abuse in Houston, and the proprietor who accepted food stamps for chopsticks and was fined for breaking the law in San Jose, and the husband who slapped his wife and was jailed for domestic violence in Raleigh, . . . . .  and the half dozen who went to sleep in a crowded, freezing room in Terre Haute with a charcoal brazier for heat and never woke up, borne to permanent darkness on an invisible cloud of carbon monoxide.”

The above passage goes on for a full two pages, and, eventually, grades into the success stories: “the story of a baby orphan adopted by a Kansas billionaire, or the mechanic who bought a lottery ticket in Arlington and became a multimillionaire, or the girl elected president of her high school class in Baton Rouge, or the boy accepted by Harvard from Fond du Lac.” The whole long riff ends as follows: “So it was that we soaped ourselves in sadness and we rinsed ourselves with hope, and for all that we believed almost every rumor we heard, almost all of us refused to believe that our nation was dead.”

Another wonderful passage describes The Captain’s visit to the home of a Hollywood director, where—after finally breaking his way through the conceited director’s monologue, he delivers a forceful lecture on a subject dear to his heart: how the Vietnamese scream.

“Screams are not universal, I said. If I took this telephone cord and wrapped it around your neck and pulled it tight until your eyes bugged out and your tongue turned black, Violet’s scream [Violet is the director’s assistant] would sound very different from the scream you would be trying to make. Those are two very different kinds of terror coming from a man and a woman. The man knows he is dying. The woman fears she is likely to die soon. Their situations and their bodies produce a qualitatively different timbre to their voices. One must listen to them carefully to understand that while pain is universal, it is also utterly private.”

The power of the above passage is reinforced when The Captain tells us what he was thinking as he impressed the words upon the fatuous director. “I stood up and leaned on the desk to look right into his eyes. But I didn’t see him. What I saw was the face of the wiry Montagnard, an elder of the Bru minority who lived in an actual hamlet not far from the setting of this fiction. Rumor had it that he served as a liaison agent for the Viet Cong. I was on my first assignment as a lieutenant and could not figure out a way to save the man from my captain wrapping a strand of rusted barbed wire around his throat, the necklace tight enough so that each time he swallowed, the wire tickled his Adam’s apple. That was not what made the old man scream, however. It was just the appetizer. In my mind, though, as I watched the scene, I screamed for him.

“Here’s what it sounds like, I said, reaching across the desk to pick up the Auteur’s Montblanc fountain pen. I wrote onomatopoeically across the cover page of the screenplay in big black letters: AIEYAAHHHH!!! Then I capped his pen, put it back on his leather writing pad, and said, That’s how we scream in my country.”

The author has a wonderful feel for the way human psychology works. In the scene describing how The Captain murders the innocent Sonny, there is a suggestion that deep in the neurons of his brain Sonny realizes the danger he is in, but the neurons cannot get the full message to his conscious mind in time. Flustered at the Captain’s admission that he is a sleeper agent, Sonny suggests that the General has put him up to coming here—the General has done so, but he has put out a contract on Sonny’s life. Sonny even once uses the word “kill”: “I think you’ve come here to trick me. You want me to say I’m a communist too, so you can kill me or expose me, don’t you?”

The novel is a bit weaker at the end, where it describes the Captain’s return to Vietnam and his interment in a labor camp for “re-education.” The author, although by birth Vietnamese, has barely ever been in his home country and must make up nearly everything in this part. Consequently, the reader must do a good deal of “suspending disbelief” in the latter pages of the novel. The business about how Man insists on torturing his friend until The Captain understands the meaning of the word “Nothing” is much belabored and, ultimately, unconvincing. Then again, we are expected to believe that by the time we read it, the manuscript (the first 307 pp.) has already been through three drafts, which are redacted by the commandant of the camp. I see little evidence of the viewpoint of a true-believing communist in that manuscript part of the book. One more thing: what language is the ms written in, Vietnamese or English? It is so thoroughly steeped in the English language that one has trouble imagining it written in Vietnamese for the eyes of the commandant. More heavy suspension of disbelief.

A few passages would be wonderful, were they not so suggestive of other Western writers. Take the masturbation scene: “I committed my first unnatural act at thirteen with a gutted squid purloined from my mother’s kitchen.” The story of the love affair with the squid goes on for two pages, and would be more entertaining were not the whole business purloined from Roth’s Portnoy. Once in a while a line sounds like it might have come out of Mickey Spillane, or from Garrison Keillor in the role of Guy Noir: “Her legs demanded to be looked at, and would not take no, non, nein, nyet, or even maybe for an answer.” Then again, the Captain can be quite an innocent for a military man; even though he himself carried a .38 special back in Vietnam, he is unaware that the weapon accommodates five cartridges, not six, as we are told in the novel.

These are mere quibbles, not meant to detract from the brilliance of the novel on the whole. Although the writer has a Vietnamese name, he is, essentially an American, having come to this country at age four. The novel, as well, is set firmly in the tradition of the Western novel. To what extent it may also be in the tradition of the Asian novel, I do not know, as I confess my ignorance of Asian literature. It would be interesting to hear how this book goes over in Vietnam, after it is translated into Vietnamese and published there. You kind of wonder if the Vietnamese reaction might be like the commandant’s reaction to The Captain’s confession: too mired in Western ways, too “American” in its viewpoints. And that would be still one more grand irony.

To return one last time to Dostoevsky, the ending of The Sympathizer reminds me somewhat of the ending of Crime and Punishment. In that novel we are left with the author’s nudging hard at his recalcitrant, atheistic Raskolnikov, with the aid of the unbelievably saintly Sonya, pushing him over into the camp of Russian Orthodox faith, but not quite getting him pushed there. The split-personality “hero” of C and P—so we are told—has made strides forward, but has certainly not yet resolved his split or atoned for having committed murder. It would take another long novel, writes Dostoevsky in the final pages, to describe Raskolnikov’s true religious transformation and healing. Of course, that sequel novel was never written. In his turn, the author of The Sympathizer has mentioned in interviews that he has considered writing a sequel to his novel. He has not suggested, however, that the bifurcated Captain has a chance to resolve his split. Not likely.

U.R. Bowie, author of One Ton: The True and Heartrending Tale of a Fatboy’s Triumph

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