About halfway through Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, the protagonist of the novel, a Vietnamese spy for the North, on assignment to follow a Southern Vietnamese general exiled to America after the war ended, is tasked with hiring extras to play Northern Viet Cong “baddies” in an American made Vietnam War film.
The narrator gets his extras from, of course, southern Vietnamese refugees who had escaped after the war. Nguyen creates an unsettling take on the war and its aftermath by using an absurd and troubled setup, and a melange of confusion and convolutions of ironic reversals. The Sympathizer is an accomplished, clever, and finally, deeply melancholic piece of work about the Vietnamese diaspora scattered by war but is also, oddly enough and hilarious.
Nguyen depicts Hollywood’s recreation like an absurd act of fantasy, and he is as assured at this satirical writing as he is at capturing the chaos of the last days of Saigon. Indeed, it is Nguyen’s nimble veering from satire and absurdity to a sudden snap of pathos, with barely a moment’s respite for readers to process the shift, which makes The Sympathizer a unique and original work. The book is certainly ambitious. It tackles such subjects as Hollywood’s representation of the Vietnam War, Pop culture, the uprooted, nationless Vietnamese diaspora, divided loyalty, and even the unveiled racism faced by a half Vietnamese, half French narrator. The times were such a frothy mixture of all these elements that the book’s narrative remains focused and interesting even with such a sprawling scope is a credit to Nguyen’s ability to control the narrative.
Occasionally, Nguyen’s narrative voice over-relies on the ruminating, critical mind of the novel’s hyper-articulate narrator. Nguyen is a professor, and his narrator reflects this tendency to treat his situation with the wordy language and jargon of academia when judicious silence would have been better served. Some moments in the novel simply don’t need critical commentary. When a white American director of a film on the war (a loose imitation of Coppola) gives a deeply troubling speech to his cast about real Vietnamese refugee to “inspire” them to be more authentic, readers can see that the setup is a satirical gold mine: “Long after this war is forgotten, when its existence stay a paragraph in a schoolbook, students won’t even bother to read it, and those who survived died and their bodies dust…this work of art will still shine so brightly it will not just be about the war, but it will be the war.” (172) Given the horror of such a claim, so bluntly hubristic and American, Nguyen does not need to do more than let the director, Trumplike in ego, emote in his own language. Yet he spends a lengthy accompanying paragraph explaining and layering it with the narrator’s reflection. “And there you have the absurdity…”, he begins, and we, readers, lose the thread of darkness introduced. The critic takes over when the language and situation were more than enough.
Such a flaw does not overshadow the book’s beautiful flights of rich, evocative prose. The most gorgeous and breathtaking passages occur when Nguyen simply lets his speakers speak, without critical commentary; at such moments, his prose rips into a darker undercurrent of America’s troublesome relationship with the war and Vietnam’s complex relationship with its past. It depicts the tug and pull of nationhood, the fragmentation of various identities, and shows us how lives can be torn violently apart by traumatic events.
We heard from Nguyen’s pen too, the loneliness of the uprooted and exiled, the despair of the disenchanted. As a boat person who left the country many years ago, it was gratifying for this reviewer to read a work that so aptly captures the melancholia and nostalgia of a diaspora now scattered across the world. How timely for Nguyen to publish this work and end it with a reflection upon the refugee’s existence: a shade of a human being, nationless, tossing himself into the ether with only a singular goal to survive, to live, to inform his days. The Sympathizer is a dark, nihilistic vision, but one that is peppered with humor, with absurd situations and revelations, all written in a distinct voice. Flawed it may be, but it is also a powerful and original work and an astounding first novel.