I was only three months old the day Saigon fell to the People's Army of Vietnam. Much too young to comprehend the images on television of helicopters landing on the rooftop of the U.S. embassy carrying the champions of democracy and heroes of capitalism safely away from the evil communist victors. My newly minted brain couldn't handle context and complexity so I did what most people of my generation did; concocted a one-dimensional dark fairy tale version of this war. It wasn't hard, the Hollywood propaganda machine was more than happy to supply me with the American narrative. It went something like this:
Helicopters and damaged men. The rattle of M-60's and the creeping terror of an unseen enemy. The Viet Cong were demons spawned in the darkest jungles of Indochina where they perfected the arts of torture and interrogation. What chance did Willem Dafoe have, really?
It turns out he had a much greater chance of survival than the average Vietnamese civilian. Over 600,000 non-combatants lost their lives -many in extremely brutal fashion- as the war surged through Laos and Cambodia. Ten years before American audiences watched the death of Sgt. Elias, gnashing their collective teeth in impotent rage, Vietnamese refugees poured into the United States. For these "boat people" the war never really ended. Forcibly evicted from their own country they landed on the shores of the nation that promised to protect them only to be enslaved by a Capitalist system with baked-in inequality and prejudice.
The nameless narrator of Viet Thanh Nguyen's novel is our tour guide through these turbulent times. A tour guide with a very unique perspective. He is a communist sleeper agent, educated in America and embedded as a close advisor to a South Vietnamese General. He is a self described "man of two minds", with the gift and curse of seeing events from multiple perspectives. It is through his eyes that we see the true tragedy of this war and the hypocrisy of it's architects. The North Vietnamese saw themselves as freedom fighters liberating the downtrodden from the oppression of Capitalism and foreign corruption. That didn't stop them from throwing thousands of people into reeducation camps after the war and implementing destructive policies of mandatory agrarian labour. The allies charged with beating back this communist aggression weren't much better. They routinely used CIA sponsored torture techniques to route out communist agents and when they realized they couldn't compete with the Army of North Vietnam in the arena of jungle warfare they decided to kill the jungle. The chemical defoliant they used poisoned the landscape for generations.
The Sympathizer injects something badly needed into the Vietnam narrative: Sympathy. With a deft hand Nguyen guides the reader down the rain sodden roads of history and makes us feel something for everyone involved. It all culminates with a baptism through pain which reveals a universal truth to both the narrator and the reader: The concept of freedom is fluid, and fighting for it is ultimately futile.