By Viet Thanh Nguyen
Grove Press, 2015
The Sympathizer begins during the fall of Saigon. The narrator, called The Captain, is a spy for the North Vietnamese, embedded in the South Vietnamese army. He is working for a Vietnamese General and flees Saigon with the General and a childhood friend, Bon. The opening pages are moving and memorable. Nguyen deftly captures the chaos in Saigon as the North Vietnamese invaded, and after some initial setbacks, the Captain, the General and Bon, and others, make it out and to Southern California. The Captain, who went to college in LA and speaks English well, gets a job working for a former professor and eventually meets up with a film director who, much like Francis Ford Coppola, is shooting a film about the Vietnam War. The Captain travels to the Philippines to work on the film, as a handler for the Vietnamese extras, all refugees living in the Philippines.
This book is a spy story, a love story and a war story, but it is also a critique of the stories about the Vietnam War that have come before it. Told with a first person narrator, the book explores how Americans have appropriated the Vietnam War in books and films, and how our stories are about our experiences and for the most part render the Vietnamese experience to cliché characters whose screams we don’t even know how to accurately capture on film.
Nguyen’s prose is intense and beautiful, reminding me of Roberto Bolano’s in 2666. The Sympathizer is a dense read, but an amusing and entertaining story, while also being political. The ending though took me by surprise. There are some scenes in the final pages that were rather gruesome, and are not for the faint at heart, but overall I found this to be an immensely satisfying book and one that made me rethink how I thought about the Vietnam War and what happened to the Vietnamese soldiers who fought on both sides after the war. I could see this being a good book for a book club, as I wished I had people to talk about it with when I was done reading it.
Nguyen is a professor at the University of Southern California. He was born in Vietnam and grew up in the United States.
A received an e-book version of this book from the publisher via Net Galley.