Thursday, January 12, 2017

Review of The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Corsair, 2016)

April, 1975. As the Viet Cong advance on Saigon the Americans are leaving. At his villa, a South Vietmanese general, who is head of the secret police, and his chief-aide draw up a list of those to be given safe passage from the country. It is left to the captain to make the arrangements, bribing various officials for appropriate documents and access through checkpoints. As shells begin to fall on the city the selected few gather and head for the airport. There they scramble onto the last departing flight, becoming refugees and leaving millions to their fate. Via Guam they arrive in America and try to rebuild their lives, having slid from the elite and privileged to poverty. The general dreams of returning to South Vietnam and starts to build a resistance movement, aided by Claude, his long-time CIA liaison, and his trusted captain. However, the captain is not so trust-worthy, having been a long-time spy for the Communists. The captain is a man-in-between, the offspring of a French priest and Viet mother, a man educated in the US but serving a communist cause, a man who has sympathies for the people and values of both sides. This is evident in his primary commitment: his two best friends – one a committed communist and his Viet Cong handler, the other a committed anti-communist who wants to return home and take revenge for the death of his wife and child.

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.

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