Book Review : The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Sympathizer is a blistering exploration of identity, politics and America, wrought in electric prose. The narrator, a Vietnamese army captain, is a man of divided loyalties, a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist sleeper agent in America after the end of the Vietnam War. A powerful story of love and friendship, and a gripping espionage novel, The Sympathizer examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in Literature, film and the wars we fight today.

The Sympathizer is a story of a Vietnamese Captain implanted by the communists to spy on the government, his life while in exile in America and his struggles of being a bastard, a son of a poor Vietnamese woman and a French priest.

The story is in first person narration, the Captain being the narrator and to be honest, I can’t remember his name since he always did the talking and he was always referred to as the Captain.

The narration is light, funny and naughty, something I did not expect from a post war novel, but it is heavy, painful, bitter and ugly when needed. Also while reading this, I felt like the narrator is a person of now, the voice seemed modern not someone of the past. Not that I found this bad, it’s just new to me as usually, post war novels give me that vintage feeling. And also, maybe because the narration is on point without so many figures of speech.

One thing that I liked and also maybe one of the reasons why the story seemed light is the way the captain called the other characters. Instead of their Vietnamese names, which could also have been difficult to remember, the narrator used funny names like Grizzled Captain, Crapulent Major, Affectless Lieutenant, Hefty Machine Gunner, Philosophical Medic and so on.

On the political side, this story shows how America was there to give Vietnam their ‘freedom’ so to say, then left the country hanging, on the brink of destruction and war between the divided countrymen (which seemed like a similar scenario in most of the Asian countries where America dipped their fingers in).

Take home lines from the novel

…tragedy was not the conflict between right and wrong but right and right, a dilemma none of us who wanted to participate in history could escape.

We don’t succeed or fail because of fortune or luck. We succeed because we understand the way the world works and what we have to do. We fail because others understand this better than we do.

The unseen is almost always underlined with the unsaid.

But what is more revolutionary than helping one’s enemy and his kin? What is more radical than forgiveness?

Love is being able to talk to someone else without effort, without hiding, and at the same time to feel absolutely comfortable not saying a word. At least that’s one way I’ve figured out how to describe love. I’ve never been in love before. It leaves me with this strange need to find the right metaphor to describe being in love. Like I am a windmill, and she is the wind.

Displaced people also lived in two time zones, the here and the there, the present and the past, being as we were reluctant time travelers. But while science fiction imagined time travelers as moving forward and backward in time, this time piece demonstrated a different chronology. The open secret of the clock, naked for all to see, was that we were only going in circles.

Before I only wanted to change the world. I still want that, but it was ironic how I never wanted to change myself. Yet that’s where revolution starts.

We’re revolutionaries, my friend. Suffering made us. Suffering for the people is what we chose because we sympathized so much with their suffering.

We thought our reflection in the mirror was who we truly were, when how we saw ourselves and how others saw us was often not the same. Likewise, we often deceived ourselves when we thought we saw ourselves clearly.

If one understood history’s laws, then one could control history’s chronology, wresting it away from capitalism, already intent on monopolizing time. Β We wake, work, eat, and sleep according to what the landlord, the owner, the banker, the politician, and the schoolmaster command, Man has said. We accept that our time belongs to them, when in truth our time belongs to us.

Side Story
  • I did not expect the novel to be funny even though a praise ‘Tremendously Funny’ is clearly written on the top of the book cover. I don’t believe these praises as sometimes, I feel that these aren’t real.
  • This book is a nice surprise.
  • I didn’t know the author but when I saw this in the bookstore, I thought I’d buy it as I have never read anything about the Vietnam War or anything about Vietnam. This book made me ask myself (again), was I sleeping during all my history classes in high school and college? Because I think I want to retake History classes (LOL).
  • The last take home line is a the answer to a question I always ask myself. Why do I have to wake up early to work and leave late? Why do I have to do this? Until when do I have to do this and after all the time spent in school and work, where has my life gone?

So would I recommend this book? Definitely.

Author: aysabaw

Aysa is a self-proclaimed hotelier without any culinary talent. She used to fly around Dubai for ten years via her magic carpet but destiny led her to a new path. She is now a little mermaid swimming in and around the Maldivian waters. If she is not reading her books, writing something comical, leaving rubbish comments on your posts or strumming her guitar, then she's up to some mischief.

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