The Sympathizer by Viet Nguyen (2015, Grove Press)
The Sympathizer, by Viet Nguyen, is a new breed of noir novel, which academia is turning out these days. The author is a distinguished man of letters at a major college in California. And he doesn’t disappoint. This is the story of the Vietnam conflict told through the eyes of an undercover spy, a mole, a deep operative, a man without a name who is a metaphor for so much. Except that he can’t seem to remember who he is.
The narrator of The Sympathizer works as a spy for the Viet Cong and, eventually, the Vietnamese government. He’s pointed out as a bright boy early on by a CIA operative named Claude. He is recruited by the United States to come study at a prestigious university. The narrator returns just as the Vietnam conflict is entering its final stages. The product of a relationship between a French priest and a village woman, he never quite fits into any society, and this allows him to see the world from many perspectives.
He’s introduced as an aide to a South Vietnamese general in charge of counter-intelligence. From this position, he’s able to pass information on to the Vietnamese communists about what the nationalists are up to at any given moment. He also witnesses some of the most frightening atrocities committed against the Viet Cong supporters. He has two good friends, one a rabid anti-communist (his father was made to kneel and take a bullet to the head by the communists) and the other his contact in the Viet Cong. When the general flees to escape the advancing communist troops, the narrator is ordered to go with him.
He returns to the US and takes a position at a liberal arts college. There he watches the general attempt to restart the war by way of his connections and secret bases near Vietnam. It’s all a complete waste of time as no one wants to keep on fighting. A Vietnamese journalist in the US argues to forget about the war and gets a bullet in the head from the general’s people. Meanwhile, the narrator records everything and sends in via invisible ink to a contact in France.
The plight of the South Vietnamese nationalists is painful to read. They flee to the United States and are forced to start over from scratch. For all his attempts at viewing them through communist eyes, you see the proud officers and trained elite of a society turn into waiters, liquor storeowners and day jobbers. Worst of all, the narrator is hired to fix a script for a Hollywood movie about the conflict which has all the worst tropes of any Vietnam War film. As the narrator points out to the “auteur” who directs it, there aren’t even any speaking parts for Vietnamese. Even the parts for the Vietnamese are played by Chinese and other Asian actors. The crowd scenes are accomplished by hiring out starving boat people living in a refugee camp for one dollar a day.
Eventually, the narrator ends back up in Vietnam. He disobeys his contact’s instructions and follows his childhood friend on a suicide mission to the Vietnam border. On a secret mission into his former country, he is captured. Of course, he’s given the sendoff by the general whom he’s worked off all these years because of his interest in the general’s daughter:
“You should have known better, Captain. You are a soldier. Everything and everyone belongs in his proper place. How could you ever believe we would allow our daughter to be with someone of your kind?
My kind? I said. What do you mean by my kind?
Oh, Captain, said the General. You are a fine young man, but you are also, in case you have not noticed, a bastard. They waited for me to say something, but the General had stuffed the one word in my mouth that could silence me. Seeing that I had nothing to say, they shook their heads in anger, sorrow, and recrimination, leaving me at the gate with my bottle of whiskey…. It was stuck in my throat and had the taste of a woolen sock sodden with our homeland’s rich mud, the kind of meal I had forgotten was reserved for those who ranked among the meanest.”
And this is where the book really takes off. Because the communist reeducation camp makes Orwell’s Coventry resemble a holiday in Colorado. We find out that the entire book, written as a confession stems from this part. The narrator, although a deep cover agent from the communist Viet Cong, is accused by them of being a turncoat. He attempts to prove otherwise by writing the confession. The final phase of this part of the book is strictly from Room 101. Although there are no caged rats, the mental and physical torture the narrator’s former handlers put him through is terrifying. I have found few descriptions of physical torture, which disturbed me so much.
The book is written in first person with no quotation marks. Sometimes it gets a little hard to identify the speaker, but you become accustomed to the style after a while. Here is a good example of it:
“I looked at Ms. Mori, sipping her wine. He died in the war?
No, she said. He refused to go to war. So he got sent to prison instead. He’s still bitter about it. Not that he shouldn’t be. God knows I’d probably be bitter if I were him. I’d just like for him to be happier than he is. The war’s thirty years past and it still lives with him, even though he didn’t go and fight.
He fought, Sonny said. He just fought at home. Who can blame him? The government puts his family in a camp and then asks him to go fight for the country? I’d be mad as hell, too.
A mist of smoke now separated the three of us. The faint eddies of our thoughts took fleeting, evanescent material shape, and for a brief moment a ghostly version of myself hovered over Sonny’s head. Where’s Abe now? I said.”
This is a great spy novel and should be read by every fan of the genre. No handsome men in tuxedos who play with high-tech weapons. Just gritty people who try to survive in a world that shifts on them. More George Smiley than Bond. Still, an important book that I recommend.
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