In a New York Times article from April 24, 2015 entitled, ‘Our Vietnam War Never Ended’ writer Viet Thanh Nguyen states, “The tendency to separate war stories from immigrant stories means that most Americans don’t understand how many of the immigrants and refugees in the United States have fled from wars – many of which this country has had a hand in.” Nguyen addresses these intertwined issues of war, immigration, assimilation and revolution in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, ‘The Sympathizer.’ Starting with the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War is seen through the eyes of a Vietnamese man, The Captain, he is both communist and conspirator. A bastard born to a Vietnamese mother and a French Priest father, he is born into duality, and it becomes his very nature. As a young man he is educated in California, “part spy-in-training, my war was psychological.” Nguyen writes.
Nguyen’s genius prose reveals The Captain’s every thought. The continuous psychological warfare is created in the protagonist’s mind. He is constantly questioning the morality of certain issues, overlooking, undermining, not speaking, acting out – and drinking, drinking, always drinking. This is the state of war. The Captain has two friends, Bon and Man, who are his blood brothers. They share a scar on one hand and any time one of them raises a glass or shakes a hand the knowledge of their pact is tangible. This bond is the only thing that is seeing The Captain through the haze of the fall of Saigon, and the inevitable escape to America. Where he is once again a sleeper spy, watching, waiting, wondering how the boredom will pass and when the next moment of chaos will occur. To break the boredom there are love affairs, assassinations, nights out to hear old songs that were sung in Saigon, and finally the ultimate distraction, a sojourn in Hollywood.
Here America is seen in all her self-absorbed glory. The Captain is hired as a translator for a movie about the Vietnam War. His primary goal is to get speaking parts for the Vietnamese actors. When The Captain first reads the screen play there is only a series of Asians dying and American soldiers speaking. He is successful in achieving part of his goal. But when The Captain and Bon see the movie together in Bangkok, the Captain realizes there is no credit title in the reel for him and Bon further humiliates him off by declaring, “You were going to make sure we came off well. But we weren’t even human.” The Vietnamese experience in the movie is only a shadow of the barrage of American-fueled ideology further reinforcing the American myth of the Vietnam War, and further angering the Captain, bruising his vanity, and allowing himself to question his entire identity.
However, in this novel there is nothing but humanity. There are flaws and disappointments of so many people experiencing loss of country, loss of loves, and yearning for something, anything familiar. While The Captain sips pho in a new Vietnamese restaurant, as the clock above him ticks in Saigon time, he notices that all the tables are full of his countrymen. As seen from the Captain’s perspective there is always a tugging between a world that is lost and a world that is present.
Nguyen’s novel does much more than mesmerize the reader with language, Cold War spy dynamics, and truthful storytelling of the immigrant experience. It raises the question of America’s role in all of it. Nguyen also includes American perspectives. One voice, a white Southern Californian professor, discusses what it means to be Asian, Oriental, Vietnamese, Japanese, or “forever caught between two worlds.” For him it is a study made of human behaviors, witnessed but never felt or empathized, only taking part in the food or the women or both and having no concept what the truth might be. As seen in the novel, Americans are (we are) very upfront with our opinions, at times leaving little room for the truth to spill out from someone with a foreign experience, already assuming, as we are a world power, that we know the answer. Nguyen’s novel leaves lingering questions, “What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others?”