(Book Review) The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

By Sam Orndorff

sympathizerFor a year, I lived in Asia.  I went there to teach ESL with my girlfriend at the time.  We were disillusioned millennials and there seemed no reason to stay in Ohio.  Before leaving, someone had asked us if Koreans lived in huts.  They inquired with a half-serious laugh, if I recall.  I couldn’t tell if they realized the question was racist.  They weren’t really asking what the homes are like there.  They weren’t asking much at all–they just wanted a small home to look down their nose at.

Despite similar questions of that nature, most people had earnest interest in what the East would be like.  People of Asian descent make up about 1.7% of the population we grew up around.  This is part of why many white people hold a false perception that Asian stories are distant, underdeveloped, new, marginal.  The Asian part of the American story has always been in the fold of events, from the Filipino sailors in New Orleans during the Revolutionary War, to the Polynesians sailing across the Pacific centuries before that.  But when the media is hell-bent on uplifting the voices of white people, it becomes harder to get word of the depth of Asian history.

Our questions about Asia prove insolvent.  Our questions are unable to repay the debt of our unknowing.  Unable to heal the damage of war scars from US conquest.  Our questions expect the Other to be diminutive, less than but not equal to.  We see past high rise developments towards imagined huts.

I answered “no” to the question.  But the truth is, that’s not the entire story.  Two hours north of the capital was where I lived, along muddy rice farms and mountain chains near the DMZ separating South Korea from North Korea.  There, people do inhabit small structures of salvaged material–what you could call a hut.  These people were rural, elder, mostly women on their own.  The story of the rich country is made possible by the marginal who reside at the periphery of Capitalism.

I know now it’s possible to answer the question in the affirmative.  That’s the story I’ll try to tell here, the one made possible after a year and a half away.  Before that time I had hit stagnation, ennui, bitterness at work, mistrust in the sustainment of my society.  It was more of a question of risking happiness far away than waiting for it to evaporate at home.

So, he said, are you happy?  It was an intimate question, nearly as personal as asking about my salary, acceptable in our homeland but not here.  What was worse, however, was that I could not think of a satisfactory answer.  If I was unhappy, it would reflect badly on me, for Americans saw unhappiness as a moral failure and thought crime.  But if I was happy, it would be in bad taste to say so, or a sign of hubris, as if I was boasting or gloating. 

Korea fell victim to “Containment” theory, much like the Vietnam of The Sympathizer, where the above quote originates.  Unlike the Communist North of Korea, however, in Vietnam the insurgence eventually gained control of the entire country.   Nguyen’s groundbreaking debut novel begins there.

Dear commandant the unnamed anti-hero calls us from an undisclosed location.  It starts dark.   Immediate affinity to Ellison’s Invisible Man arises from the shadows.  The story ambles out of the midst of catastrophe, no time for quotation marks.

The story he tells is of Asian-Americans and Asians able to represent themselves, rather than be represented.  Nguyen’s evenly paced prose introduced me to advanced words at every turn.  And much more than just big words like crapulent.  He even manages to milk out pages of jokes about the concept/word nothing, his punchline basically asserting that nothingness is a presence.

Dual reality is the major force throughout, which is something that I relate with my experience outside America.  I left America because sometimes it feels like the Wild West here.  That my un-American lifestyle was made possible by the very escape route I sought- teaching the language of the money man, was a dissonance not lost to me.  Therein lies my companionship with The Sympathizer, a first person masterpiece from a man in-between.

Throughout his life as a refugee we are invited to listen in on the spy-qua-Captain observing from and about college life in LA (where I happen to live now, like the refugee General whose employ the Captain lies under, in a bungalow in a slightly less tony part of Los Angeles, the city’s flabby midriff, Hollywood adjacent).

We evacuate Saigon with the Captain.  In the Philippines we watch the set he works on as an advisor to a White Savior Vietnam War movie.

When meeting with the writer of The Hamlet, the novel’s Apocalypse Now, the Auteur aggressively questions the Captain’s ability to even be of assistance with Vietnamese components of the movie.  Aware of the futility in fighting stereotype, the Captain doesn’t try to get Vietnamese dialogue into the script.  He knows he can’t.  Instead he tells the movie man to get this one thing right–the scream of his people.

You didn’t even get the screams right.  If I remember correctly, pages 26, 42, 58, 77, 91, 103 and 118, basically all the places in the script where one of my people has a speaking part, he or she screams.  No words, just screams.  So you should at least get the screams right. 

The confrontation ends with the Captain scrawling AIEYAAHHH!!! on the manuscript and storming out.  He moves from being muzzled to feeling acceptance, but not a quiet acceptance.  If he couldn’t speak, then he would scream.  This is one of those profoundly symbolic moments of the book, like the scene in Invisible Man when Brother Jack’s glass eye falls out of his head.  I had to set down the book and exhale a holler.

We Americans scream with wide open “AAAAHHHH” mouths.  When I went to Matador State Park in Malibu, there were some Latino young men who chugged beers and left their shirts on the beach.  The guys took off into the sea, joking and screaming in Spanglish “YIIIIE YIT YIEE!”.  I realized the book gave me a new dimension into my own listening.

One must be grateful for one’s education no matter how it arrives.

I tweeted the quote and attributed it @viet_t_nguyen, the author.

Not long after, suddenly, my heart fluttered–a rose red heart lit up my notifications.  My phone said “Viet Thanh Nguyen liked your tweet.”

I was with family back for vacation in Ohio.  The thin rouge fabric between performer and audience raised up for just a moment.  The experience had knocked open another one of my doors of perception, like the crabs I see in crates in the Koreatown markets.  They still move, slowly, suddenly, calling up from the lost like the crabs in deep blue tanks and brown market boxes in Korea.

The ruptured perspective of a spy might seem to make the narrative lose focus, but the opposite is the final effect–dual analysis, dialectically apt, strengthened in severed form.  The Captain proves his humanity through his candor.  Still, there are several points in the book it seems his clandestine identity isn’t undermining any of the old guard.  He has to sacrifice people who in their own right are basically innocent.  He isn’t revolutionary.  By taking us through the monologue of a mole, we get to see the shortcoming of both worlds.

This frame is compounded from the author’s own forging of a new path–neither Asian nor Western, but both.  The sympathizer battles the stereotypes of being half-Asian and half-White, the constant smoldering of epithets hit him from Americans and Vietnamese alike.  Like pain, love, and struggle, complexity is universal.  It would be wrong to use the stories of carnage, death, destruction, and pillaging as a guide, but it’s hard not to in a perpetual war era.

Everything my guidebook said was true and also meaningless.  Yes, the East was vast, teeming, and infinitely complex, but wasn’t the West also?

Nguyen establishes disconnect from both realms.  It is ironic how popular the book has become–decades after the Vietnam War, we still connect to those pains.  My personal experiences don’t have the particular pain of the Vietnamese people.  I hope my own people’s perspective moves beyond our casual refusal to listen to the story Asian people have been telling us.  Like Nguyen says at the interview with Paul Tran in the postscript appendix after the story:

I think that that when the New York times book review says that The Sympathizer gives voice to the voiceless, it is inaccurate.  There is, by now, a significant body of Vietnamese American and Vietnamese literature translated into English.  It’s simply that Americans as a whole tend not to hear them.  Nevertheless […] I do think that The Sympathizer fills a gap in what that literature talks about.

Post-reading I will move towards those writers to continue that discussion.  In the meantime, I know how to better answer maligned questions posed to myself and others.  I hope I can better contest the notion that the world must either be like America, or be ridiculed if it is not.  I hope the hell that American occupation wrought abroad can one day come to an end in all parts of the world.  I have to wonder whether or not Americans expect foreigners to live in huts because maybe we’d feel less bad about stomping and slashing a hut down, at least compared to a house.

Bill Withers spoke to the phantom limb of a Vietnam veteran.  The man lost his dominant hand in combat.  He couldn’t write left handed, so Bill wrote that song.  In The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen is writing a love song to the lost limb.  Phantom pains are real, despite the unreality of the missing, the lost, those passed on.   For too long, these stories have been unreal and undiscovered in my life.  New education makes me grateful, I wouldn’t be who I am today without good books.  I am grateful for this one.


Sam Orndorff’s writing has appeared in riverSedge, Gravel, Sunset Liminal Press, Sediments Literary Arts Journal, Crab Fat Magazine, and is forthcoming in Turtle Island Quarterly and Duende.  You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

3 comments

  1. I believe Sam Orndorff is evolving to a more complex understanding of his country and mankind, but he does tend to over-generalize. If the average American is ignorant of conditions in Korea, it may very well be that is less a sign of racism and more a fact of ignorance due to more immediate concerns. When I worked in a potato warehouse in North Dakota, I informed my co-workers and farmer boss that I was raised in Ohio. They were curious what the ocean was like. The Sympathizer sounds like a very good book. However, I believe phantom pains is a universal phenomenon. Each of us humans is caught betwixt and between our true identity and the way we are perceived by others. Whether it be sexual orientation, physical or mental challenges. racial or ethnic stereotyping, emotional dissonance, family disconnection, geographic differences, age-related disassociation, or undercurrents of religious, cultural, or intellectual tensions, each carries the cross of being misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misidentified in some form or another by others, often by those we most expect to be compassionate to our particular injurious circumstance. The value of a book like The Sympathizer is not in pointing fingers at who is to blame for the distress of the characters, but rather to have our eyes opened to the painful humanity of their situation and decisions and the following consequences of those decisions. It permits the reader to be taught that it is perhaps not the hurricanes of the ocean or the poverty of living in huts which most torment those of us who are lost souls..

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