Who Are Your People?

The Sympathizer a novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Grove Press.   385 pp.  $16.00

This novel won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and is a remarkable work of art—I’m stunned at the way this younger novelist projects himself back into this tumultuous time—but I’m more interested in it as a human document than as a novel.  It’s written in the first person and reads like the story of someone who really lived.  By the end I’m not sure who he is or what he’s for.  I’m not sure he knows either.

This piece may be full of spoilers, but I see no other way to write about the book.  Much more happens than the little that I talk about here.

When they were young teenagers, after a bullying incident at school, three teenagers in Viet Nam made a blood pact always to stand up for each other.  In a way their personal loyalty meant more to them than any other loyalty in their lives.  By the time they are young men, one is fighting for the North, one for the South, and the third is in the South—high up in the government, the right hand man of a General—but is sympathetic to the North.  He’s our unnamed narrator.

The story opens at the end of the war, with the now famous retreat from Saigon, when only the highest officers in the military were getting out.  Our narrator and the general make it.  His friend Bon—one of the blood brothers—also makes it, but Bon’s wife and child are killed in random gunfire as they’re escaping, in a scene that is both horrifying and heartbreaking.  The survivors make it onto an aircraft and wind up, bewilderingly, in Los Angeles.  That’s where their story in this country begins.

The General—one of the most powerful men in his country—winds up owning a liquor store.  He came from a traditional and conservative culture, but his daughter has become a vampish pop singer and is living in a way he could never have imagined.  He still has respect from the Vietnamese who have made it to this country. And he still has hopes of returning and liberating his country.  The narrator ostensibly shares those hopes, but is actually sympathetic with the Communists and is in communication with them as a spy.  He’s living two lives.

I suppose I’m saying this in the light of what happened, but I found the General’s wish to return almost comical.  He’s fought in this horrific war, escaped in a hair-raising exit—he’s lucky to be alive—and he wants to go back?  It seems the wish of a madman.  That’s who our narrator is working for.

What is not funny is when, in order to further his aims, the General orders the narrator to assassinate a couple of innocent people (though no one in this world is truly innocent, as Bon says to him, and as the Catholic church would affirm).  In order to maintain his cover he has to kill people who shouldn’t have to die.  If he refuses he will lose his standing with the General, may lose his own life—the General isn’t forgiving of betrayals—and he’ll be of no use to the cause he sympathizes with.  It’s a weird Graham Greenish situation.  You have to kill people on your side to maintain your credulity as a spy.

One can’t help reflecting on the beleagured little country of Viet Nam.  Colonized by the French, a pawn in the Cold War, so their civil war took on this vast importance: what did they do to deserve all this?  Could anyone argue that the war helped the people of Viet Nam?  You might believe in one side or the other for ideological reasons, but they have nothing essentially to do with a patch of land in Southeast Asia, or the people who live on it.

Eventually our narrator and Bon make it back to that part of the world, part of an invasion force assembled by the General (two hundred people.  What did he think they could do?).  They are captured by the opposition, the people our narrator is in sympathy with.  They know he’s been working for them.  But they no longer trust that his motives—and his mind—are pure.  They begin a process of re-education and torture and brainwashing—for me the most difficult section of the book; again, I’m stunned at Viet Thanh Nguyen’s ability to create these scenes—that finally get our narrator back to the place where they want him.  What that place is I do not know.  I also don’t know what can be left of the identity of a man who has made so many twists and turns.  Who is he for at this point?  The people who tortured him or the madman who sent him there?

What really struck me in this novel was the way that all my ideas about this historical situation eventually broke down.  Everybody thought they were doing the right thing for their country and for their people.  But who was their country?  Who were their people?  Such terms lose all meaning after a while.  Can it possibly make sense to murder someone on your side in order to maintain your credulity as a spy?

Not to me.