A story of the Vietnamese war and absurdist philosophy
Uncompromising in candor, Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer dissects the American narrative of the Vietnam war and its legacy.
The unnamed narrator begins, "I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” Indeed, the narrator does occupy two worlds - son of a French Catholic priest and his Vietnamese maid, he is both occidental and orient. He is both right-hand man to the head of the South Vietnamese National Police and Viet Cong sleeper agent spying for the communist regime.
Throughout the book, we meet characters representing different contradictions that exist within the narrator. Man, a committed communist, and Bon, an ardent anti-communist, are both childhood blood brothers to the narrator. The narrator takes orders from a General who is "a sincere man who believed in everything he said, even if it was a lie". The reader later meets "The Congressman" who condemns the controls of communism while praising a democratic system that uses censorship and propaganda to manipulate citizens because "The Americans are a confused people."
The best moments of the book are those where the narrator cuts through war's moral questions to expose it's existential implications and profound absurdity. While being tortured the narrator asks, "what does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs?, and why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others?" In a thinly veiled reference to Apocalypse Now, the narrator comments, “This was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most effective propaganda machine ever created…”
While the story does not treat war with the same levity as Slaughterhouse Five or Catch 22, it does have hilarious moments. For three cringe worthy yet glorious pages the narrator describes his attempt to masturbate with a dead squid!
The Sympathizer is a work that both confronts the loneliness that extends from nihilism and lays out the need for human connection despite personal contradictions and untruths. If you choose to read it, you will be left in a daze that echoes Camus's The Stranger in its absurdist indifference. As the narrator claims, "We will live."