Book of the Week: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
New Year, New Series
One of the things I'm excited to do this year is to try to read a book a week and write a little about it. I'm inspired to try this after I started following a friend of mine (Jim Dahlin) on Facebook who did this last year (you can check out his blog here). I often read close to a book a week as it is, but I don't take the time to collect my thoughts. I hope this series will allow me to do just that, and perhaps, for me to introduce some of my favorite books to others.
Book One: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The first book of 2018 is technically a 2017 read; I finished it on my New Years Eve flight home. I previously noted that one thing I love about Jesmyn Ward's fiction is that her novels function to make the familiar strange. For me, growing up in southern Louisiana, her work takes a familiar place and shows me a different side–people and places that help me to realize my own limited perspective.
You could say the same thing about Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer. I'm coming up on almost a decade here in Los Angeles, and although I've explored many parts of this city, I feel like Nguyen's LA is strange. I have worked in the very parts of Hollywood that Nguyen's characters roam, yet when I read his book, I feel like I'm seeing east Hollywood for the first time. That said, most of this novel takes place in Vietnam.
In many ways, The Sympathizer is an embodiment of a number of conversations that are taking place in critical theory and postcolonial studies. The protagonist is a member of the South Vietnamese secret police who is also a double agent for the Viet Cong. At the same time, he's the bastard child of a French Catholic priest and a teenage Vietnamese woman. Educated in the West and working as a liaison between the American CIA and the Saigon regime, our protagonist–who we only know as "the Captain"–is the very definition of intersectionality. He is neither accepted as Vietnamese like his mother nor as European like his father; he is not Occidental (despite his studies at the aptly named Occidental College) and yet he is so influenced by his time in West that he is viewed with suspicion by his Vietnamese comrades. He was born a Catholic, and he still pretends to be, but he disdains the church, unable to distinguish it from his priest-father. The Captain is the ultimate sympathizer because his identity is split down the middle with regards to so many of these binaries and he holds sympathies with all sides.
This book is St. Augustine meets Graham Greene. The obvious Greene novel to consider is The Quiet American, another work based in Vietnam. And certainly Claude, the Captain's CIA mentor bears a striking resemblance to Greene's Pyle, albeit a little less naive. Likewise, the Captain shares a psyche with Greene's protagonist: skeptical of the ideological commitments of his colleagues, adrift in the tensions between orient and occident; however, that is low hanging fruit. Although Nguyen nods to The Quiet American when we learn that the Captain wrote a term paper on The Quiet American in college, readers should look instead–I think–to Greene's The Power and the Glory, or the lesser known The Honorary Consul and Monsignor Quixote. These are all works where Greene is placing Roman Catholicism and Marxism in tension, letting each interrogate the other in honest, and often brutal, dialogue. Although the Captain has left his Catholicism behind, we cannot help but feel its influence on every page. Indeed, the majority of the book is written in the style of a confession. Like Greene, by the end of the novel, neither Catholicism nor Marxism claims the upper hand, their representative characters having exposed their many flaws.