“As Hegel said, tragedy was not the conflict between right and wrong but right and right, a dilemma none of us who wanted participate in history could escape.”
The Sympathizer boldly promises to redefine the way you think about the Vietnam War. A lot of that simply comes down to its narrator, a Communist spy embedded among his exiled countrymen in the United States. Our narrator is divided between loyalty to the nationalist friends and family he spends every day with, the Communist allies he has sworn allegiance to, and in a way to the curious home he has found in the United States. His very heritage identifies him as a man caught between two worlds, born of a Vietnamese mother and a French priest who represented an attempt to colonize his homeland. The Vietnamese people sneer at his heritage and refuse to accept him as one of their own, and the French do the same.
The narrator’s passivity is meant to give us an entrypoint into the morally complex world he inhabits, but in the end he’s so passive that it’s hard to feel much for him at all. Even worse, it’s hard to understand quite why he feels such a blind, all-encompassing loyalty to the Communists. It never really made sense to me, and when you can’t reconcile who the narrator is it becomes difficult to care about his circumstances.
Nguyen’s language is overly flowery (and oddly sexualized), which doesn’t exactly help. This does tone down as the novel progresses, but it never goes away completely. The plot, meanwhile, meanders for large swathes of the novel with no apparent purpose. The narrator takes a diversion into Hollywood that serves no actual purpose other than to hammer in a point about how the way Americans view the war is a narrative constructed for them, one that frequently minimized the lives most impacted by the war and by their presence in Asia: the Vietnamese themselves. It’s an interesting point but the segment is overly long and painfully disconnected from the rest of the novel. You could omit it from the book completely and it would not suffer at all (in fact, the pacing might improve greatly).
In the end, The Sympathizer is an audacious idea with shoddy execution.
“What was it like to live in a time when one’s fate was not war, when one was not led by the craven and the corrupt, when one’s country was not a basket case kept alive only through the intravenous drip of American aid?”