Review: The Sympathizer

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.

— Viet Thanh Nguyen

If you have to pause, sit back, and take a moment to soak in the words you’ve just read, you know it’s a good book. That (and thinking “Oh f*ck!” and “Holy sh*it!” every twenty pages) perfectly describes my experience with reading The Sympathizer, a surreal and enlightening adventure from which I’m still feeling dazed. It’s been a long time since I’ve reacted to a book so much, and the experience was simply amazing.

The best way to describe Nguyen’s novel in one word is angry. It’s a combination of black comedy, cerebral thriller, and sociopolitical commentary wrapped into a historical novel about the war, the one that needs no name for people like me, children of Vietnamese refugees. His story puts blame for the war and its aftermath on all parties: Americans, Vietnamese, French colonizers, no one is innocent.

The narrator/protagonist of the book is a man of two minds, a sympathizer who’s a Viet Cong double agent that infiltrates the South Vietnamese army. He’s the bastard child of a French priest and a Vietnamese teenage girl and the victim of two conflicting ideologies: Occident vs. Orient, Western vs. Eastern. The book is framed as his confession, written during his imprisonment after the war.

Though the writing gets florid at times, the layers of metaphors, allusions, and pedantry are quite fun, even if many of those descriptors are overly sexual in my opinion. I guess it just reflects the narrator’s style and personality more authentically. Here are a few phrases taken out of context for you to enjoy:

  • “vaginal darkness”
  • “cephalopodic bride”
  • “The whore! The whore!”
  • “I was in close quarters with some representative specimens of the most dangerous creature in the history of the world, the white man in a suit.”
  • “penicillin of American goodness”
  • Tex-ass”

And here are some of my favorite quotes:

  • “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?” (29)
  • “I pitied the French for their naïveté in believing they had to visit a country in order to exploit it. Hollywood was much more efficient, imagining the countries it wanted to exploit.” (134)
  • “Americans on the average do not trust intellectuals, but they are cowed by power and stunned by celebrity.” (254)
  • “Oh fish sauce! How we missed it, dear Aunt, how nothing tasted right without it, how we longed for the grand cru of Phu Quoc Island and its vats brimming with the finest vintage of pressed anchovies! This pungent liquid condiment of the darkest sepia hue was much denigrated by foreigners for its supposedly horrendous reek, lending new meaning to the phrase “there’s something fishy around here,” for we were the fishy ones.” (70)

The story and themes were so riveting I could not put the book down. Oftentimes I had to resist the urge to snap my fingers and say, “Yes, gurl!” whenever Ms. Mori dropped a truth bomb about microaggressions prevalent in Asian American experiences. That would have been a funny sight on the subway!

Though the first third of the book (the characters’ escape from Vietnam) was full of high-tension, life-or-death action sequences, I found the second and third sections absolutely stress-inducing so, of course, more interesting. It was the Vietnamese refugees’ day-to-day struggles of acclimating to American society and being treated as inferior simply because they were nonwhite immigrants that hit home for me. My parents and grandparents had similar experiences, being refugees themselves, and though I was born in the U.S. and am frankly more American than Vietnamese (at least in my opinion), I can relate to the feeling of being an “other” as well.

As for the final section of the book, all I can say is damn. It was tense.

The Sympathizer easily gets a place in my top five books of all time, though I’m not sure where exactly yet. I’ll have to think hard about that one. Nevertheless, I would recommend this to anyone who’s not squeamish about violent stuff and/or uncomfortable with angry Asian narratives. And if you are uncomfortable, then you might want to check that out…

Yuko Shimizu for The New Yorker’s review of The Sympathizer

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