The Wisecrack

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen is the confession of a mole. We never learn his name. The General calls him Captain. His handler, Man, calls him his blood brother. Other, less kind people might call him a bastard. The sympathizer is the product of an unholy union between a French priest and his Vietnamese maid.

The sympathizer calls himself a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize for The Sympathizer, his debut novel.

Looking for Vietnam

The Sympathizer opens in April 1975, mere weeks away from the fall of Saigon. We meet the General, his formidable wife, the CIA operative Claude, and various servants, subordinates, and hangers-on. Notwithstanding heroic speeches and gestures, the General is intent on leaving Saigon before it falls to the Communists. It is the sympathizer’s task to convey the General and his 91 closest friends and relatives to America.

The rumble was that the price of visas, passports, and seats on evacuation airplanes ran to many thousands of dollars, depending on the package one chose and the level of one’s hysteria.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Vietnamese-American poet, Ocean Vuong, gave us poignant scenes of the fall of Saigon in his collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Nguyen shows the panic, the cowardice, and the hypocrisy. Everyone knows that the Americans intend to evacuate. They know that the signal will be Irving Berlin’s song, “White Christmas”, played on by the US Armed Forces radio. The name of this top-secret operation is Frequent Wind.

Who was the military mastermind who squeezed out Frequent Wind from between his tightly clenched buttocks? Didn’t it occur to anyone that Frequent Wind might bring to mind the Divine Wind that inspired the kamikaze, or, more likely for the ahistorical, juvenile set, the phenomenon of passing gas, which, as is well known, can lead to a chain reaction, hence the frequency? Or was I not giving the military mastermind enough credit for being a deadpan ironist, he having also possibly chosen “White Christmas” as a poke in the eye to all my countrymen who neither celebrated Christmas nor had ever seen a white one?

On the Streets of LA

When the General and his entourage make it to Los Angeles, they face the ignominy of being refugees. The General is no longer a man to be feared. He operates the cash register at a liquor store. Other high-ranking officers serve as janitors, short-order cooks, and mechanics. These are the lucky ones.

a fair percentage [were] collecting both welfare and dust, moldering the stale air of subsidized apartments as their testes shriveled day by day, consumed by the metastasizing cancer called assimilation and susceptible to the hypochondria of exile.

The sympathizer, by contrast, spent his college years studying the Americans and their ways. He knows how to dress. His English is flawless. The sympathizer finds a make-work job at a local university. He has plenty of time to take in the pleasures of LA.

Flaming tiki torches flanked the entrance, while inside, ominous masks of some unknown Pacific Island origin were pinned to the planked wall, their lips seeming to say, Ooga booga. Table lamps in the shape of bare-breasted, brown-skinned hula girls in grass skirts cast an ambient glow. The waitress likewise wore a grass skirt whose faded straw color matched her hair, her bikini top fashioned from polished coconuts.

Is it strange for a novel about the Vietnam War to land in Silver Lake? Not at all, Nguyen writes.

when Americans think of war, they tend to think of men fighting “over there.” The tendency to separate war stories from immigrant stories means that most Americans don’t understand how many of the immigrants and refugees in the United States have fled from wars — many of which this country has had a hand in.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, “Our Vietnam War Never Ended“, The New York Times, 24 Apr 2015


The Sympathizer is structured as a confession, thus creating its own built-in audience: the commandant. His concern is that the sympathizer has become too Westernized. This device allows Nguyen to make his most mordant observations about his fellow Americans.

As a nonwhite person, the General, like myself, knew he must be patient with white people, who were easily scared by the nonwhite. Even with liberal white people, one could go only so far, and with average white people one could barely go anywhere.

Nguyen writes regularly about the role and responsibilities of the minority writer. In the current US political climate, we need to speak up more than ever. Nguyen wants to avoid apologies, explanations, translations to make Vietnamese understandable to Americans.

I did not want to write this book as a way of explaining the humanity of the Vietnamese. […] Rather than writing a book that tries to affirm humanity, which is typically the position that minority writers are put into, the book starts from the assumption that we are human, and then goes on to prove that we’re also inhuman at the same time.

Viet Thanh Nguyen in an interview with Paul Tran, “Viet Thanh Nguyen: Anger in the Asian American Novel”, The Margins, 29 June 2015

By the end of The Sympathizer, we see how inhuman the Vietnamese can be.

Now that we are the powerful, we don’t need the French or the Americans to fuck us over. We can fuck ourselves just fine.

The Mole’s Dilemma

Despite the drama of The Sympathizer, it was hard for me to feel for the guy. In the first two-thirds of the novel, he’s glib, smooth, perfectly well-possessed. He gets terrific lines. Like: if there is one part of a prostitute that is made of gold, it is not her heart. Or this scene with the love interest Ms. Mori, who ain’t so bad herself:

I think I’m falling in love with you.
[…] let’s get one thing straight, playboy. If we get involved, and that’s a big if, there are no strings attached. You do not fall in love with me and I do not fall in love with you. She exhaled twin plumes of smoke. Just so you know, I do not believe in marriage but I do believe in free love.
What a coincidence, I said. So do I.

After a while, these one-liners become tiresome. The sympathizer sounds like a wisecrack and I lose interest. Perhaps, this was exactly Nguyen’s intention. A mole can’t reveal his true feelings to anyone other than his handler. He must keep everyone at arm’s length, whether by subterfuge, connivance or playing the fool.

21 August 2019 | Karen Kao