‘The Sympathizer’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015) – 371 pages
‘The Sympathizer’ is like a fine Graham Greene novel which is told from the perspective of the local Eurasian in Vietnam rather than that of the white colonialist. Make no mistake; what the United States was fighting for in Vietnam was the last gasp of colonialism which officially ended with the fall of Saigon. Remember the United States took over from the French who were trying to hold on to their colony.
Not only is our narrator in ‘The Sympathizer’ a French-Vietnamese, he is a double agent. As well as being a Captain in the South Vietnamese army, he is an undercover operator for the Viet Cong forces. His true loyalty is to the Communist side. Thus he has a most skeptical attitude about the General he ostensibly works for.
“Whatever people say about the General today, I can only testify that he was a sincere man who believed in everything he said, even if it was a lie, which makes him not so different from most.”
Graham Greene would have approved of that line. This novel has that Greene quality of being able to deal with things as they actually are. Your own side is probably at least as wicked as the other side, and thus you can see the treachery on your side. Thus you can point out your friends’ deceptions and self-justifications as well as that of your enemies’.
“As the Congressman arose, I calmed the tremor in my gut. I was in close quarters with some representative members of the most dangerous creature in the history of the world, the white man in a suit.”
‘The Sympathizer’ will give you perspectives on the war that are vastly different from those of any other Vietnam War novel.
Early in the novel, there are vivid scenes of the fall of Saigon when the Vietnamese who worked for the Americans are desperately and hopelessly rushing for the helicopters to get out.
“The truth, in this case, was that at least a million people were working or had worked for the Americans in one capacity or another, from shining their shoes to running the army designed by the Americans in their own image to performing fellatio on them for the price, in Peoria or Poughkeepsie, of a hamburger.”
Later the story turns devilishly humorous as our Captain becomes “a technical consultant in charge of authenticity” for an ‘Apocalypse Now’-style Hollywood movie about the Vietnam War. This is devastating parody with an arrogant director and an insufferable egomaniac as its star. From the silly movies which Hollywood made, you would have a difficult time realizing that the United States did indeed lose the Vietnam War. The films “marked something new in the world, for this was the first war where the losers would write the history instead of the victors.”
‘The Sympathizer’ is as close as most of us will ever get to reading the victors’ perspective on the Vietnam War. It is an audacious performance.