The many complexities and diversity in one historical fiction—The Sympathizer

“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.”

Book introduction:

At the fall of Saigon, a Vietnamese communist spy flees with the southern army to Los Angeles, while secretly reporting the General’s plan to the communist superiors. Set in California, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines, the book beautifully and wittily tells a story of love, betrayal, revolution, identity, colonization, and a broken nation. The book is a blistering exploration of identity and America, a gripping espionage novel, and a powerful story of love and friendship.

Book Recommendation:

The book is a must-read for history lovers, especially people interested in reading a unique narrative of the Vietnam War. The book is also recommended for those into high-paced thrillers, espionage novels, and those who appreciate some dark humor and laughter (bitter ones, though). Also recommended to anyone who just loves to read powerful language.

Rating: 4.5/5

The many complexities and diversity in one historical fiction—The Sympathizer

While the book The Sympathizer, a historical fiction, focuses on one historical event and its aftermath, the book itself holds great diversity in the aspects of perspectives, voices, themes, purposes, and the nature of the book as a humorous historical fiction, thriller, and satire. Not many authors can ambitiously put so many things in one book, especially in the telling of one historical event by one narrator. The duality and even multi-perspectives of the book are achieved by the innate duality of the narrator himself, the style of the book, and the unique angle the author chooses to tell the story.

When we first critically examine the book, there is no way that we can deny its nature as a historical fiction, namely a novel based on true historical events. The most obvious purpose of the book stands out: to showcase the historical event authentically and the human side of the Vietnam war. Nguyen not only includes the telling of a historical event but also does it with diverse perspectives. He does not tell the story from the standpoint of an American (who intervened), French colonist, the Northern communist, or people from the Southern regime. Instead, he cleverly creates a complex character (a communist spy who fought for the South and fled to the US as a refugee), in a way that reveals the complexity of the historical event as well as very different perspectives of different groups of people. For the audiences who are generally unaware of the Vietnamese perspective of the story, Nguyen brings representation for those authentic voices in the book while also making the story approachable for the American audiences.

“I did not want to write this book as a way of explaining the humanity of Vietnamese,” the narrator writes. “Toni Morrison says in Beloved that to have to explain yourself to white people distorts you because you start from a position of assuming your inhumanity or lack of humanity in other people’s eyes. Rather than writing a book that tries to affirm humanity, which is typically the position that minority writers are put into, the book starts from the assumption that we are human, and then goes on to prove that we’re also inhuman at the same time.”

Nguyen refuses to prove the human side of Vietnam during the war because it is innately a human story; instead, he starts from humanity to disclose the cruel inhumanity, which is an approach that brings representation and awareness without having to conceding one’s humanity. The protagonist confesses every detail of his memories, including his first experience of masturbation. In his retrospect, he angrily claims that “massacre is obscene. Torture is obscene. Three million dead is obscene,” projecting the inhumanity of war in the most human and even humorous way, considering that he is also finding an excuse for talking about masturbation.

Another layer of diversity also boils down to the identity of Vietnam during and after the war, and the identity of its people. Many identities are being discussed throughout the course of the novel: the identity of the half-French-half Vietnamese protagonist himself; the identity of Vietnamese Americans as refugees; the identity of Vietnamese people; the identity of Vietnam in the American imagination (as showcased in popular Hollywood movies, books, etc.)

To begin with, the character himself embodies the duality as the product of French colonization. With his mother impregnated by a French officer in North Vietnam, the nameless protagonist suffers from embracing his blood from the very beginning of the book, which is also the symbol of Vietnam suffering from decades-long colonization. The protagonist has to constantly repeat the line, “Remember, you’re not half of anything, you’re twice of everything,” to hide the shame and insecurity regarding his birth. The complexity of the Vietnam war is also exemplified through the protagonist’s identity as a communist spy who hides in the Southern army. The narrator intelligently tells a story of a broken Vietnam from both the North and South perspective, avoiding further stereotypes or simplification of one event or identity.

The country is described as “cursed, bastardized, partitioned into north and south”, and it was not voluntary. The narrator confesses, “we had not chosen to be debased by the French, to be divided by them into an unholy trinity of north, center, and south, and to be turned over to the great powers of capitalism and communism for a further bisection, then given roles as the clashing armies of a Cold War chess match played in air-conditioned rooms by white men wearing suits and lies.” From the perspective of Vietnam, the author perfectly characterizes the harm of colonialism and neo-colonialism by telling the story of the victims—the north, the south, and the country as a complete entity that suffered collectively from the forces of colonization.

There is more diversity in the scope of the story. It is never confined to Vietnam but introduces the American lens to the audiences, where many Vietnamese soldiers from the South fled to the United States. From such a perspective, the narrator tells a story of seeking refuge and becoming somebody else in a new nation. The narrator and the General became nobody in the United States and experienced a contrast in their roles in Vietnam and the US. The change is characterized when “[America’s] refugee members were hobbled by their structural function in the American Dream, which was to be so unhappy as to make other Americans grateful for their happiness.”

Likewise, the attitudes towards the US intervention in Vietnam is complex, mainly dominated by rage and anger. The narrator expresses that Americans “believe in a universe of divine justice where the human race is guilty of sin, but they also believe in a secular justice where human beings are presumed innocent ”and that they “pretend they are eternally innocent no matter how many times they lose their innocence”.

Finally, the labels that readers can put on the book are diverse: the book is a historical fiction, a satire, and in the meantime it’s a thriller (based on the protagonist’s role as a communist spy), and the book contains endless humor. During the most impressive scene of the story, where the protagonist gives suggestions to the Hollywood movie about the Vietnam war, the narrator’s tone is both humorous, sarcastic, and melancholic. Likewise, in the last section of the book where the protagonist goes through interrogation (like the plot of 1984), there are both desperation and absurdity as the protagonist starts using the pronoun “we” because he realizes that he is always a person with two parts.

Given the complexity in historical narration, identity imagination, storytelling, and style of the book, there is so much more to explore in this one book. The book breaks stereotypes about the war in a fabulous way that combines humor, anger, despair, irony, and thrill in one setting. Although long and wordy, the book contributes to a better and more complex understanding of a complex event.

information: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Date: 3/30/20

Published by Sunny

I am a high school rising sophomore and I love to read and write.

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