Brief Commentary on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer

Jun 2020

In the fall of 2019, I wrote a short blurb reviewing The Sympathizer for a campus publication. I asked a friend to look it over for me, who did not get back to me in time, so it was never published. In lieu of its original purpose, I’ve posted it here for others to read.

Having sat on my reading list for far too long, this summer I picked up Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel, The Sympathizer. Drawing inspiration from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, it stars a nameless protagonist on assignment as a spy for the North Vietnamese, torn between his communist sympathies and a genuine admiration for his South Vietnamese comrades. Nguyen’s take-down of Western representations of the Vietnam War, in particular Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, is thorough and satisfying, noting the ways in which the United States has continually attempted to deny Vietnamese people their agency – first by means of brutal violence, and again in Hollywood media portrayals. The novel is an artful depiction of what it means to be caught between two sides, and its final message is a forceful censure of binary thought, attacking the superficial distinctions we draw between East versus West, capitalist versus communist, and us versus them.

I read The Sympathizer coincidentally having seen Apocalypse Now only a few weeks beforehand. For me, the film was little more than a propaganda piece that dehumanized Vietnamese people and exalted war atrocities, justifying U.S. interventionism in the process. In the novel, the protagonist serves as an advisor to “the Auteur,” a character inspired by Francis Ford Coppola, who makes a film about the Vietnam War similar to Apocalypse Now. As I read, I felt that Nguyen shared many of my frustrations towards Apocalypse Now, ones for which I had been unable to find validation among those who watched the film alongside me. That being said, Nguyen’s own relationship with the film is more complicated. You can listen to his thoughts in an interview with National Public Radio here.

The Sympathizer is not just a stellar example of contemporary Asian-American literature, but of contemporary literature in general. There’s more to be said about it, but for now, I offer only these thoughts, and encourage you to go read it.

Viet Thanh Nguyen is the author of The Refugees, a collection of short stories, which I also recommend.