Thursday, January 12, 2017
Review of The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Corsair, 2016)
The Sympathizer documents the confession of ‘the captain’, an official in the South Vietnamese secret police who flees to America as Saigon falls, who is also a secret agent for the Viet Cong. His confession is a fairly lengthy and rambling account of his flight and resettlement in Los Angeles, his work as an advisor on a movie about the Vietnam war, and his return as part of a resistance cell. In it, the captain explores a whole series of issues relating to politics and ideology, identity and belonging, inclusion and exclusion, struggle and resistance, friendship and social ties, loyalty and self-deception, and how war is perceived and pursued by different parties. In this sense, it provides quite a different perspective to American framings of the Vietnam war, yet a large part of the story is set in America and concerns American-supported actions. The result is what might be termed a ‘big story’, covering a lot of territory and being thoughtful and reflexive. Some of the writing really sparkles, with nice prose and insightful analysis. Occasionally the tale is flabby and too meandering, getting lost in its pursuit of being a ‘big story’. And while the lead up to the conclusion was interesting, with some nicely literary tricks, I just didn’t believe the ending. Overall then a big story that delivers a thoughtful and thought-provoking, but also a slightly uneven, literary tale.