The literature of the Vietnam war is curious in its incompleteness. On the American side, the war has mostly been immortalised in the memoirs of people who witnessed it, from Philip Caputo to Michael Herr to Nathaniel Tripp. These are intense recreations of frontline battle, but they tend to lack a more subtle sense of context. Vietnam is a war that Americans would rather forget, and rarely are deeper layers of literary emotion employed to reimagine it. On the Vietnamese side, on the other hand, there are the works of Bao Ninh and Dang Thuy Tram — the former the author of a gloomy in-the-trenches novel, The Sorrow of War, the latter a tragic young North Vietnamese doctor who was killed in 1970 and who wrote a moving diary called Last Night I Dreamed of Peace, which was published many years after her death. Yet otherwise very little Vietnamese writing about the war has been published in English. The Vietnam tragedy has yet to produce the elegiac works that might rival those produced by the parallel tragedy of Cambodia, Jon Swain’s River of Time or François Bizot’s The Gate.
It is this strange context that makes the appearance of The Sympathizer — a novel by the young Vietnamese-American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen — so interesting. Perhaps it needed a generation raised in the US to fill in the gaps, so to speak, and give new voice to the many silences in which this little-understood war has remained embedded.
Nguyen’s tale takes the form of a confession written by a North Vietnamese secret agent — we might call him “the Captain”, as the author does — who works as a communist mole inside the military and security establishment in Saigon just before its fall in 1975. A man of mixed race (his father was French), the Captain is then charged with accompanying a south Vietnamese general on his flight into exile in the US, a country where our narrator himself had studied earlier in his life.
Once ensconced in comfortable suburban California, which of course he can observe from a rather unique perspective, the Captain is called in as an adviser to a Rambo-esque movie about the Vietnam war being shot in the Philippines and called, unpropitiously, The Hamlet. Finally he is summoned by communist superiors to assist an absurdist counter-revolutionary group as they make their way to Bangkok and thence to the Laotian border where they hope to launch a raid into Vietnam.
Unsurprisingly, the raid fails and the Captain is “captured” by his own side. But, unfortunately for him, automatic communist rehabilitation and redemption do not follow. He is interrogated in scenes worthy of Dostoevsky and finally forced to write out his entire confession all over again. He is then promised a free passage out of the country and back to the US by his interrogator, who turns out to be one of his steadfast comrades — and thus he joins the unenviable ranks of the so-called Boat People, those who have lost one country and culture without regaining a second.
This plot alone, in fact, summarises the tragic dilemma of Vietnam’s exiles, whose depth of confusion when relocated to the US surpasses virtually all others. After all, Americans could seem no less baffling, exotic and deranged to them than Easterners often appeared to whites: “Yes, the East was vast, teeming, and infinitely complex, but wasn’t the West also? . . . The Westerner, of course, took his riches and wonder for granted, just as I had never noticed the enchantment of the East or its mystery.”
But of course the Captain is also, presumably, a committed communist and indeed at the end he is held to account for his westernised internal culture. That culture is perfectly embedded in his style and voice, which is sophisticated, urbane and wittily embittered, suffused with the regret of a superlatively educated literateur. It could be argued that this voice is, in a way, improbably too American and too academically savvy to be that of a communist agent of the 1970s — but it makes for a cunning and elegiac voice for the novel itself.
There are a few false notes. Coming out of a ping pong bar in Bangkok (what else?), the Captain and his companion immediately run into a cinema playing The Hamlet. Unlikely, it occurred to me, in Patpong either now or then, and a little contrived as regards the plot. As with many American novels, one often feels that one is rambling through a long essay in which characters are sometimes incidental or merely there to provide stimulating conversation or make cultural arguments. More economy and less digression might have improved The Sympathizer’s considerable merits.
All in all, however, this is a fierce novel written in a refreshingly high style and charged with intelligent rage. And indeed, as I sit in my favourite café terrace here in Hanoi looking out over a prosperous French-era street draped with hammers and sickles for Tet and crowded with luxury Toyota cars, I wonder, like the Captain, who won and who lost the war itself and what the confusions and terrors of that time will really yield in the long run. It’s impossible to say. But to ponder such questions in the first place, one could do worse than read this unique novel.
The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Corsair, RRP£18.99/Grove Press, RRP$26, 384 pages
Lawrence Osborne is author of ‘Hunters in the Dark’ (Hogarth)
Illustration by Toby Whitebread