Review: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, and some ruminations

I picked up The Sympathizer from Waterstones a month or so ago, because I had a £50-note which I had to break up (in order to add value to my laundry card – laundry was a top priority because I had, like all students truly experiencing university life, run out, yet again, of clean underwear). I tried paying for a coffee with the note at Caffe Nero but the cashier refused, so out of desperation I grabbed the first book which looked remotely interesting; this was a successful mission because I managed to get the £10-note I needed as change for the novel. Truth be told, The Sympathizer was not something that I would usually pick up. For one, I had not read much fiction at all in the past few years. When I did dip into novels, they were (mindlessly) easy reads by Picoult or Phillipa Gregory: books with familiar contexts or characters, where the literary nuance was not critical. I could skim-read those books within days, gulping down plot twists without much consideration for turn of phrase – they were, in short, good respite from reading cases which, I gradually came to realize on this Oxford pilgrimage, actually required more than scanning. It was hard enough work digesting each dictum spouted by old white men. I felt like I didn’t need to voluntarily sign up to using my brain more.

But probably because a golden circle on the cover announced that The Sympathizer was Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2016, and because I was slowly realizing that for all my professed love of literature, my actual literary credentials were minimal since I found classic novels – frankly – often boring, and generally time-consuming to tackle, I thought that reading a modern, award-winning classic could be rewarding. The blurb from The Guardian (Best Books of 2015) described it as “tremendously funny…[a reminder] of how big books can be“. While personally I didn’t find it tremendously funny per se, it was an interesting process following the nameless narrator’s story as he navigated the fall of Saigon, resettlement as refugees in America and the final return to Vietnam.

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The narrator (“The Captain”) is a “half-breed bastard“, born out of wedlock of a French pastor and a Vietnamese peasant; he has been teased all his life for being an outcast. He owns this duality from the start as he proclaims that he is a man of two faces: in fact, he is a sleeper Communist agent embedded in a Southern Vietnamese General’s household, assisting in the efforts to escape as the Viet Cong ominously approach. Throughout the novel, the Captain writes to his contacts with invisible ink, describing attempts by the General and his men (now resettled – somewhat unwillingly – in America and relegated to menial jobs like owning liquor stores and being deliverymen) to rebuild an army to reclaim Vietnam. The Captain’s primary contact in the revolution is Man, an old school friend who first helped ignite his revolutionary tendencies; yet, his best friend Bon, whom he saved from Saigon, is a firm believer in the efforts to battle the VC since the latter killed his father – and later, his wife and son. Internally, the Captain, despite being born and growing up in Vietnam, was educated in the States and learnt to speak English without an accent. All these dualities highlight similarities and inconsistencies present in every man and woman, every nation, every dream and every ideology.

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At the end of the novel when the Captain is being tortured (“re-educated”) by the Communist government following his capture (since he decided to tag along with Bon’s suicide mission to retake Vietnam with other Vietnamese refugees who had settled in Bangkok, primarily to save Bon from himself), he comes to the delirious revelation that nothing can mean nothing, but that it can also mean something. His interrogators press him: “What is more precious than independence and freedom?” – the Captain originally answers “nothing”, which is self-evidently the correct response in this fill-in-the-blanks exercise regarding Ho Chi Minh’s quote. The torture continues; it is not the answer they were looking for. It is only at the end when the Captain is truly broken and shouts nihilistically nothing that he realizes both how independence and freedom are the most precious things in the world – what all ideologues believe in, whether they be Viet Cong or American or bog-standard revolutionary – and how nothing, the absence of things, is more precious than independence and freedom i.e. these things are worth less than nothing in a society where oppressed becomes oppressor, and where promises crumble to nothing once the promisors take power.

Viet Thanh Nguyen ends on an ambiguously hopeful note, declaring that “we remain the most hopeful of creatures…we will live!” – perhaps it is true for the Captain, who does escape from the re-education camp (albeit perhaps with a broken mind and a fragmented sense of self: he refers to himself in the enigmatic “we” afterwards in a complete acceptance of the duality of his self), that he has good reason to be hopeful. But what merits that optimism? Is it not depressing to think that every wave of good-intentioned revolution, every movement that spawned of righteous fervor and a burning desire to do better and bring good – once these grow in scale, inevitably the edges are polluted by the ambivalent, the freeloader, the spy, the stupid; the fringe is made up by those who ultimately come to represent the movement, because they speak the loudest – these are the ones who trumpet your ideology and add extraneous details to dilute its potency. They abuse your good intentions; they piggy-back on your purity and determination and allow those on the fence and on the other side to point and criticize. Every movement has that breaking point when that fringe slowly becomes the lightning rod, and after that point it all starts crumbling, and every good intention corrupts and falls apart.

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And on the eve of the 2017 CE “Election” that same fear creeps up on you: whether this genuine emotion of hope surrounding John Tsang is something to be encouraged, or whether it is something to be feared. Whether that wave of energy is simply a manifestation of public opinion, which – so they say – is the bedrock of any democracy or representative government because isn’t it ultimately about what the people want? And if you don’t respect the people’s wishes, how is it that one truly stands for democratic reform? But it is a man of two faces, an energy with two minds: perhaps that energy is posited on misinformation, on disillusionment with asking for more and seeking what we are entitled to so that we ultimately settle for the easy things.

John Tsang could be, for all we know, a sleeper agent for Communism.

 

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