Book Review: Viet Nguyen’s The Sympathizer

Luka Willett ’20

If you are looking for a relaxing, light book to soak up your spare time between classes or before bed, look elsewhere. Nguyen’s first novel, The Sympathizer, is one of beautiful prose coupled with intensity. Set as one continual flashback, the book is mainly written as the confession of a political prisoner following his experience as a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist mole. The reader follows an unnamed narrator as he carries out espionage while struggling with the dualities that come from working for the North Vietnamese government and being a friend to many South Vietnamese military personnel. These internal and external contradictions and Nguyen’s beautiful prose makes The Sympathizer a heavy, yet enjoyable read.

The use of the unnamed narrator allows Nguyen to guide the reader through the character’s internal conflicts involving his bicultural identity and his role in the Vietnam war. Although I found the style quite impressive, some critics compare the book’s narrative style to that of other American authors. One critic from The Guardian, Randy Boyagoda, perceived the anonymity of the narrator and his double life as very similar to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, calling Nguyen’s style merely a “showy riff” on what others have done before.

Personally, I disagree with Boyagda’s perspective of the novel. His language seems to reduce the novel’s design and fails to acknowledge that Nguyen’s style is apt when considering the nature of the narrator. Due to the fact that the narrator struggles to understand who he is, his place in the war as well as in the world, it seems fitting that his name is not mentioned. Furthermore, the Vietnam war was fought around the identity of a nation, which makes the narrator’s struggle not only one of harrowing nature, but also a microcosm of what the Vietnam war was to the millions of Vietnamese people that experienced it. As one Vietnamese reviewer noted, finally, Americans have an opportunity to see the perspective of Vietnamese people on the war, which is in stark contrast to the popular Hollywood films like “Apocalypse Now” and “Good Morning, Vietnam.”

Of course, as mentioned, this book should not be taken up with the expectation of a light read. English teacher Nick Hiebert once asked me what I thought of the book and, after giving the question some thought, I responded by stating I admired it, yet understood why many schools had decided not to offer this book in their courses. Littered with violence and acts of Hobbesian nature, the book describes a plethora of brutal events, commencing with a torture scene that makes George Orwell’s ending to 1984 seem uplifting.

For those who are not afraid of vivid detail and are looking for a plot with characters that will make you reconsider identity and the Vietnam war, The Sympathizer is the perfect book for you.