Often the focus of the Vietnam War is the dogged determination of U.S marines confronting enemy jungles infested with bullets, backdropped by blooms of napalm. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2015 novel, “The Sympathizer,” begins instead with the collapse of Vietnam, far from those frontlines. Nguyen’s main character, a nameless double agent, embodies the heart of this intricate narrative as he navigates the chaotic flight from his home country.
Half-French and half-Vietnamese, with allegiances to both sides of the conflict and soon finding himself a refugee in America, he captures many identities. Revolutionary, romantic, artist, agent and other roles are tendered in the tenuous transition through a complex Vietnamese identity into an even more unknown American one.
Navigating these various roles becomes a point of intrigue and contention as he sorts through his life.
While this book sets aside the flavors tied to this period, it has no shortage of accommodations for appreciating it as a great work of fiction.
Nguyen brings forth the main character’s mastered perceptions in full flavor. Observant of his world and those around him, he’s less of a suit-wearing, gun-toting agent and more so an agent of keen wits and keener senses. That provides basis for the humorous, satirical and comedic storytelling that he brings to his life.
This Vietnamese perspective is shunted throughout a rapidly changing present, crafting a Vietnam War not driven solely by its moment. Warring is bound within the pages of this book, but its conflicts extend beyond these insights. Stories like these work at weaving together the common fabric of human experience.
My father walked away from home because of this war, torn from his “home” and “identity”. His homesickness is hard to define but very much a reality to the way he’s taught me to live my life.
I lend this book for not only its merits alone but what it’s allowed me–and I hope for others–to understand about him and that cultural moment we’re still in the wake of.
Literature is nuanced and often private, freer to challenge the status quo and push for change. It’s difficult to retreat from its pull to find solid working understandings. Modern media is prone to censure and crushed by the current times.
Asia’s emergence on to the world stage still plays out. Today, it’s tried with navigating not only outspoken protest but also the insidious yoke of state interest. In feuds of kinship, like China with Hong Kong, cultures clash despite being so much alike. More than ever, it seems, it’s important to understand what we see in them, but also what they see of themselves.
I believe that this book sheds light upon the complex conflicts that are happening to a culture so far away but who is essentially our neighbor.