Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Sympathizer

the sympathizer-new

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. The library had my copy of Viet Thanh Nguyen's first novel, "The Sympathizer," available last week just as Don and I settled down to watch Rory Kennedy's PBS special marking the fortieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon in South Vietnam. It stirred so many memories for each of us, his as an Army private stationed there in the early days before the worst of the fighting, and mine as a spoiled college kid protesting the escalation of the bombing from the relative safety of the streets of D.C.

Of course, we both arrived at the same place. We have a deep empathy for the Vietnamese people and some measure of remorse and even shame at what the American armed forces, not the guys on the ground, but the brass at the Pentagon, did to this small but mighty country in the name of fighting Communism.

Nguyen's family fled North Vietnam for the south ahead of the Communist push, and when he was only four, they escaped to America where he received a stellar education and pursued a noted career in academia.
This sophisticated and technically exceptional novel begins with the narrator confined to a prison cell, in solitary confinement, where he is writing a "confession." The confession begins on that April day forty years ago when, depending upon who one knew and how much money one had, some would be evacuated from Saigon as the northern armies moved in.

The narrator is the right hand man and trusted confidante of a general who is in thrall to the United States and all it stands for. The general still cannot believe that South Vietnam is being abandoned, no money, no arms, no men, to fend off the north while the American ambassador and his cronies board jets to safety. But, with the help of Claude - CIA perhaps? - the general secures passage to the states, and because our narrator is a spy, he too will be flown out so that he can keep an eye on the general.

Confused? Well yes, this is a book that requires your attention. On the surface it's a thriller, espionage, but it is so much more. Nguyen may have only been four when he came to the states but he has obviously examined the physical and psychological ramifications of the migration experience of the Vietnamese people in depth. I suspect that the fact that Nguyen's central character is a spy, a man of two minds if you will, speaks to the fact that no matter how well an immigrant succeeds in his adopted country, there will always be a yearning for the origin, for his roots.

This is also a novel about three friends, Bon, Man, and our narrator, about loyalty to one's country and loyalty to one's blood brothers. It's a novel about the moral quagmire that is torture, its efficacy, its history, and sadly, how it was introduced to the Vietnamese by the United States.

"The Sympathizer" is a gorgeously crafted work of art. Each sentence is a gem. With just a few words Nguyen proffers a world of wisdom. He zings us with ironic statements that are spot on without being mean-spirited. We see only truth in the uncomfortable facts he writes about. I don't doubt that this novel will appear on many "best of" lists for 2015. Yet, for me, there is something missing.

I can't find the beating heart of this book. It seems too clinical, lacking in a soul, minus the empathy one would expect from an author recounting the demise of his homeland. As I've mentioned before, I hold every novel of Vietnam up to Karl Marlantes' "Matterhorn," a book that touched me at my core. While "The Sympathizer" has much to recommend it, especially for those interested in how governments wage war on the backs of those least able to sustain it, I fear that what's absent is the sympathy.

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