Book Reviews

The Duality Spy: Thoughts on The Sympathizer

(Via Wikipedia)

The Sympathizer (2015)

By Viet Thanh Nguyen

Personally, I wouldn’t pick up this book on my own. I had to read it for a class, but I’m glad that my professor assigned it to us. It’s a difficult read due to the writing style and the content.

In The Sympathizer, our nameless protagonist is a double agent working for the Communists and also the Americans. He is sent to the U.S. to make sure that the General and the Americans aren’t planning a secret mission to reclaim Vietnam from the Communists. While in America, our protagonist begins questioning where his beliefs stand.

The protagonist is a character of duality. He’s French and Vietnamese. He’s a spy working for both sides of the war. He has lived in both America and Vietnam. However, he has no true home or true name. Throughout this book, this dualism of our character is a central issue—our protagonist has issues claiming and making an identity for himself. In fact, his true name is never revealed as it is done intentionally.

While reading this novel, I had a difficult time finding our protagonist “likable.” There wasn’t much of an issue of unreliability towards him because although he was a spy, he was confessing everything that has happened to him to this “Commandant” who is the supposed reader. In fact, there’s was this charming charisma and humor in his prose as he told his readers what happened in America. Yet, he was still difficult for me to like because I disagreed with some of the spy actions he committed. There were scenes where he should have done something rather than nothing and there were scenes where he was forced to kill innocent men.  However, when he committed murder, he did have some remorse because it was an order that he had to comply with. So my likeability towards our main character is mainly decided on moral behavior.

I really enjoyed the amount of Vietnamese culture and knowledge of the Vietnam War that’s intertwined in this book. The only thing I know about Vietnamese culture comes from my friends and as for the war, my ignorant knowledge comes from the history books and Hollywood movies. However, in The Sympathizer, the author, Viet Thanh Nguyen, tries to encapsulate a vivid image of what truly did happen in the war. In fact, the various war scenes depicted in this book are very gruesome and graphic that at times, it was difficult to read. Viet Thanh Nguyen does not shy away from pain and torture as he creates graphic images through his descriptions so that it can leave a scarring image in a reader’s mind. So if you don’t like reading scenes about violence, torture, and rape, I would cautiously steer clear from this book. While reading these scenes, though, I began questioning as to why the author would make such torturous scenes and one concluding reason is that he’s speaking for the voiceless—the ones that suffered and experienced the war but didn’t have an outlet to express their emotions. The other reason is that he wants to rewrite what Hollywood and various textbooks said about the war. He doesn’t want to glamorize the Vietnam War but rather to show the raw and personal suffering that it has brought to the people, and this is something that I greatly appreciate in the story. Even though there are several scenes there were difficult to read, I appreciated Viet Thanh Nguyen’s emotional statement and commentary he wants to make about the Vietnam War.

Furthermore, there was something interesting that Viet Thanh Nguyen does with his writing. He doesn’t use any quotations when “quoting” about something someone else has said. The lack of quotations did not bother me, but his prose at times gets a bit confusing due to the fact that he adds layers upon layers of little episodic moments and memories within an overarching scene. A reader can get easily lost in these story layers, so you should read slowly and take in all those details. In addition, The Sympathizer fits in various genres as Viet Thanh Nguyen incorporates many genre elements in his book. On the surface, The Sympathizer is an action, spy/crime thriller as our main protagonist is a spy and as readers, we may be naturally worried about whether his identity will be revealed or not. Yet at the same time, it is also a historical war drama; in which there are many fragmented scenes describing violent war moments and people suffering. Viet Thanh Nguyen does a great job to combine a variety genres into his one book so that it can appeal to various readers and audiences.

I think my favorite thing about this book is how Viet Thanh Nguyen handles minor characters. I argue that minor characters aren’t treated as just having supporting roles to the main character but in fact, Viet Thanh Nguyen makes sure that each of his characters gets a proper ending and appear more than once in his book. I think the reason is that he wants a proper representation of people. Throughout this book, our main protagonist struggles and argues for the proper representation of Vietnamese people and even himself. And likewise, Viet Thanh Nguyen makes sure that there is proper representation of his characters, major and minor roles.

Overall, The Sympathizer is a great literary read. However, this book isn’t for everyone as some of the content could be a bit too graphic and sensitive for some readers.


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