Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a great book. I mean, really great.

Our narrator is a divided self. He is born a half European, half Vietnamese in the North of Vietnam, and then, despite being positioned to welcome Western influence in his country, aligns himself with the communists before the Vietnam War. Then, because of his excellence as a student and his not looking like what people would expect, he’s cast as a sleeper agent and rises to be aide-de-camp to a key South Vietnamese general. Most of the novel takes place in the United States where he finds himself secretly supporting the communist government and chronicling the exiles’ dreams of returning to Vietnam and creating a new counter-revolution.

The structure of the novel reflects that fundamental schizophrenia. Half of it is brooding and historical. We revisit American atrocities in Southeast Asia, we relive a history that some of us once new well but that current generations may never have known, and we get a first-hand glimpse at the horrifying re-education camps. It is, as I gather at least some critics have seen it, a history of the Vietnam War and its aftermath – in English – told from the other side.

The other part is deeply personal, though, and that’s the half that seems to me to take this from a very good novel into the realm of greatness. Our narrator cannot help but map the two halves of his identity – a Vietnamese loyalist willing to murder on behalf of his theoretical cause and a Westernized refugee/immigrant addled by sex and aware of the ambition of his ego.

Somehow, through all of that, the novel has moments of inspired hilarity. At one point, imprisoned in a camp, he contemplates the meal digesting in his stomach and labels the shit forming in his intestine another “brick” to help build the revolution. At the end [apologies for a kind of SPOILER] he finds a manic joy in deconstructive reading of “Nothing is more important than life and liberty,” turning the empty slogan into a powerful, almost-pun that undermines revolutionary thought and sloganeering. At another, echoing Portnoy’s Complaint, he recounts how he would sometimes masturbate into squid, a delicacy his Western father rarely doled out to his impoverished Vietnamese mother. It’s a tour-de-force scene, conflating an “f-the-father” Freudianism with Marxist revolution and good old fashioned teenage horniness.

In that light, a good part – though not all – of this novel works for me as what I call (Port)Nguyen’s Complaint. The two novels share a structure: Roth’s narrative is cast as an American Jew talking to his psychoanalyst while Nguyen’s is of a double-agent writing his confession for his communist allies in a reeducation camp. Both also deal with unreliable first-person narrators, characters who have reason to cast themselves as abject examples of what they once aspired to and yet who have also accomplished substantial things.

I think there’s a lot to learn in casting the two novels in conversation (maybe I have an academic project) as well. Roth, writing as an American in America, has the luxury of presenting his story as, implicitly, the story of a new sort of American. Nguyen, writing as a Vietnamese unable to ignore the intellectual gravity of the Western-American experience, can’t stand on such stable ground. Portnoy may eventually come to a kind of self-recognition at the end (though whether it’s a break though is open to interpretation), but our narrator here goes face-to-face with the failings of the Vietnamese communist project and the pangs of that country’s early rebuilding. Roth is granted what the communist’s might have called the privilege of Western decadence, while Nguyen has to reach through layers of irony just to reach the position of irony where Roth begins.

This one is already on my list of books to re-read in the next few years. Like its protagonist, it’s split along many axes: Vietnamese and American, coherent and careening, brooding and comic. With all that, it surely deserves a second reading too.

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