The Sympathizer: An Analysis and Review


Safa Hameed

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, brings a new whole level of understanding of such a mutable event in historical fiction as well as a powerful and raw voice on the Asian American experience, encompassing a dark, funny, and unwavering tone that explores identity and how the very essence of who we are can become a burden. 

The Vietnam War is one of the most discussed and argued events in world history, and like all events of such caliber, it was pretty messy. No one understands this better than a Eurasian captain who works as a communist sleeper agent during the pinnacle of it all: Saigon 1975. Death, betrayal, and espionage lead him to America where he tries to find a middle ground in a place where the grass isn’t always greener on the other side for Asian Americans. The Captain battles all this while trying to hold on to his loyalties, which prove to be mutable, and the identity of his complex being as people from all sides around him force him to pick, choose, push, and reject.

One of the many aspects that Nguyen does beautifully is taking a very nuanced role in portraying the Vietnam War that encompasses perspectives from all different sides. The Captain is the vessel for this portrayal as he is the crossroads between many worlds: the East and the West and the North and the South. He isn’t here or there, one or the other, but an amalgamation of many things which he comes to terms with as the book progresses. His father was a French Catholic priest, while his mother was a young Vietnamese woman. From the start he was always conflicted; he was referred to as a “dust left behind’ by those in his village–a nod to his existence being nothing more than a consequence of the colonizers who came, took, and left nothing in their wake. This left him with a feeling that he would never be Asian enough for the Vietnamese, and later never Western enough for the Americans he studied with and worked with. At the beginning of the book, he refers to himself as a man of two faces and this couldn’t be any truer. Right of the bat, he confesses to his role as a Communist mole in Southern Vietnam, working as a captain under the American-backed Vietnamese who don’t suspect a thing. This later gives him a unique understanding to a narrative that both sides don’t want to complicate or acknowledge. While he holds himself to his communist principles, he refuses to water the conflict down to what only the communists want to hear and recognizes the struggles of those he created ingrained relationships with during his time as a mole: from the General, Claude, and to his longtime best friend, Bon. This later angers his comrades as he sympathizes will all sides–hence the name The Sympathizer-. It is in this sense that dual identities and bi-raciallity come to light as strengths rather than a weakness as perceived by those around him. The world is one big tapestry, and day by day, those fibers that connect one part of the world to the other get tighter and tighter. Whether we want it to or not, the world gets more complex and nuanced, and refusing to see things from other lights only ever proves to put the whole at a disadvantage as we see from this narrative of the Vietnam War, which turned into a mess.

Undoubtedly, Nguyen also does an amazing job exploring the theme of Asian American and immigrant identity and the conflict, as it is represented in the book, of always being perceived as foreign. During his time in the United States, the Captain gets called on to overlook the production of a new Hollywood movie about the Vietnam war. The director and producers of the film reduce the role of the Vietnamese to nothing but savages who have no lines besides, and I kid not, the usual grunts which are depicted as their language. Despite having lost the Vietnam War, the Americans get to paint themselves out as the hero and narrate the story of the Vietnam War completely throwing in the dust both their atrocities and their many failures which devasted the Vietnamese people. The Captain takes it upon himself to get the director to include better representation of the Vietnamese people, having hopes that he could turn the film around and eradicate the many racist and stereotypical views the American audience had of the Vietnamese. The director ended up hating the Captain and complained that his views of the script and how it should be changed are useless ad that he knows better about what happened during the Vietnam War according to a white historian rather than a Vietnam citizen who was there in the heart of it all. The Captain makes little progress in his hopes of giving them better representation, and he gives up in trying to convince the Americans, calling it a hopeless endeavor. 

One last aspect that I picked up on and enjoyed is the shattering of the American dream for the many refugees who traveled with the Captain and General when they arrived in America. I don’t think this is something explicitly discussed, but as a child of immigrants who grew up in communities with other immigrants and first-generation Americans, it was something I could notice and appreciate. I think what’s so much more realistic, sad, and something that isn’t quite talked about in literature but so common among immigrant communities is the earth-shattering realization of how unattainable this American dream really. That devasting epiphany is something that you can see the characters having and I really appreciated this minor detail because it’s reality–as sad as it is. You can see this as these characters would have been revered in Vietnam for their bravery, education, sheer willpower as soldiers have to let go of their dreams and sacrifice everything.

With that being said, the book is a solid six-out-of-five star. The plot was immaculate and a head-turner to say the least, so it did require some time to stop and literally think about your thinking. It provides one of the most interesting and eye-opening descriptions of the Vietnam War I have ever read in historical fiction, so if you want a book that keeps you on your toes this is the one for you. The ending of the book itself was very open-ended, but I think this was a perfect choice on the behalf of the author because it left you to sit there and collect all the new thoughts, ideas, and opinions that those final pages had instilled. As of 2020, it was announced that there would a sequel to The Sympathizer called The Committed that will be published in 2021. As for the sequel, I can only imagine it will be dealing with the Captain coming to terms with himself and processing all of his trauma now that he seems to be out of the woods.