Viet Thanh Nguyen’s first novel The Sympathizer was one of the most surprising books I read last year. It’s told from the perspective of a Vietnamese communist sympathizer—a spy who has infiltrated the South Vietnamese army. The story begins with what should have been an ending: the fall of Saigon. The nameless spy follows his general to Los Angeles, all the while reporting back to the Viet Cong and struggling with his own feelings of guilt, loss, and loneliness.
Everything we see, we see through his eyes and his alone. Everything we know is only what he tells us. And there’s a thought rests at the back of your mind: how can we trust anything from the mouth of a double agent? This is his confession, but who is he confessing to and how can we know if he’s telling them the truth?
Reading The Sympathizer was a true roller coaster ride. From the start, I found the style of writing, and thus the narrator’s voice, somewhat cold. Distancing. I was enraptured with the descriptions of the last days of Saigon, then as the dust settled and I heard more from the narrator, I found myself frustrated with him. I found him unlikeable and irritating.
At times selfish and even sexist, I couldn’t help but pull away from him. His Communist leanings I could understand, his spying I could understand, instead it was his oftentimes shitty behavior that grated on me. But just when I thought I knew what I was in for, I would suddenly find myself sympathizing with him, rooting for him and against some other oppressive force.
For 367 pages, I teetered back and forth on this emotional seesaw. I wish I could say the ride was a joy, but it was so often frustrating for me. It was so difficult to be engrossed, and even harder to want to pick it up again every time I set it down. I was thankful with every page turned because I knew I was one step closer to the end.
I wanted off this ride.
The thing carrying me through as I read this book was the sense that I was getting something out of it. I was learning something, and not just anything, but something I needed to know. The Vietnam War is another area in our history where my knowledge is woefully lacking. (I’m pretty sure watching the first half of Full Metal Jacket doesn’t exactly count as an in-depth study.) It’s fiction to be sure, but there was something that felt sort of . . . important about reeducated myself through the perspective of the Vietnamese.
I might have hated the way it felt to have my emotions yanked back and forth, but there was never a doubt in my mind that it was being done with purpose. Nguyen hammers it home just how hard it is to understand where you loyalty truly lies as he toys with your own.
I think it was only in learning about the war this way that I could have stumbled upon the single, obvious truth that was so perfect, I was shocked at not having encountered it sooner.
Simply, that history is written by the victor . . . except when it comes to Vietnam.
Vietnam’s history was written by the losers.
It was written by us.
It’s in contemplating Hollywood that our narrator realizes,
“I naively believed that I could divert the Hollywood organism from its goal, the simultaneous lobotomization and pickpocketing of the world’s audiences. The ancillary benefit was strip-mining history, leaving the real history in the tunnels along with the dead, doling out tiny sparkling diamonds for audiences to gasp over.”
This was of course, one of those moments where I was on the uptick of my teeter-totter. Disgusted with Hollywood and even with myself for letting Hollywood educate me on this war, I was rooting for our narrator. “Fuck Hollywood,” I heard myself say—turning on one of my own passions without even realizing it.
I of course came crashing down again with his next repulsive move.
Finally—thankfully—I reached the conclusion, the culmination of all my emotional work, and I could hardly believe what I found. It was almost like a different book entirely.
The last few chapters were such a whirlwind of emotion for me. I was compelled and repulsed and overwhelmed all at once.
My god. The ending of this book pushed it from three stars to four. It made the nightmarish roller coaster and all the dragging of my feet to finish this thing worth it. In The Sympathizer, Nguyen proves he’s one of those voices truly worth hearing—just don’t expect him to do the work for you.