By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Viet Thanh Nguyen
Narration by: Francois Chau
“The Sympathizer” defines the idea of a world citizen. It is the first novel of Viet Thanh Nguyen. In the beginning, “The Sympathizer” seems like another version of a war Americans would like to forget. Chugging through the story one is nearly derailed but the denouement spectacularly realigns a listener’s direction and destination.
As is widely acknowledged, America’s abandonment of Vietnam in 1973 left thousands of South Vietnamese soldiers in peril. In 1975, the last American marine leaves the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon. Nguyen’s novel begins with hard decisions made by South Vietnamese commanders to identify native supporters, and their families, who would or would not be saved by military transport to America. Nguyen’s main fictional character is chosen to be one of the lucky evacuees. The irony of that selection is that he is a communist sympathizer, a spy.
To add to that irony, Nguyen’s spy is a Vietnamese outcast. He is one of the “children of the dust” noted in the musical “Miss Saigon”. He is a son of a white American priest who seduces the sympathizer’s teenage Vietnamese mother. As a sympathizer, he becomes an undercover agent for North Vietnam while working for a nationalist South Vietnamese general who abhors communism. It appears the sympathizer has gained the trust of the General by being the go-between for the murder of North Vietnam collaborators.
When evacuation from Saigon is imminent, the General asks the sympathizer to choose who should join them on their flight to America. The sympathizer has two close friends. One friend is also a communist sympathizer; the other is not. The three are “blood-oath” brothers, characterized as “The Three Musketeers”. The two friends are chosen by the sympathizer to go on the journey to America. The communist friend remains in South Vietnam to be the sympathizer’s contact and handler; the other friend agrees to leave when his wife and son become collateral damage in the war. His communist friend tells the sympathizer to never come back to Vietnam. The significance of that statement becomes clear at the end of the story.
Most of the novel is about the sympathizer’s experience in America. He experiences a degree of freedom and independence never felt before. But he still reports to the General. His close non-communist friend is an assassin for actions demanded by the General. The sympathizer is the go-between when orders are given. The obvious irony is that this communist sympathizer carries out orders to kill suspected communist sympathizers in America when he is the penultimate sympathizer.
The General is planning an insurgent action to be organized in Thailand to attack communists in Vietnam. The sympathizer’s best friend is selected as one of the people to participate in the insurgency. The sympathizer asks the General to let him go. The General says no. The sympathizer’s primary reason for wanting to go is to protect his friend; not to return to communist Vietnam. The General advises the go-between sympathizer that he does not feel he is qualified for the Thailand mission because he has never killed anyone himself. If he can murder a newly suspected spy, the General says he will let him go on the Thailand mission.
The sympathizer haphazardly murders the suspected spy and goes to Thailand. The valued meaning of the story becomes clearer. The assassination is a “crossing the Rubicon” experience for the sympathizer. He has personally murdered someone who is alleged to be doing the same thing he is doing; i.e. spying for communist Vietnam.
In their journey back to East Asia, the sympathizer and his friend are caught by a communist cadre. They are sent to a prison camp. The camp is led by the communist friend (the third musketeer) that told the sympathizer to never come back to Vietnam. Both the sympathizer and the non-communist friend are imprisoned, under the command of their communist friend. Under the guise of communist re-education, the communist friend protects his two blood-brothers. The sympathizer is weirdly protected by his friend through a sleep deprivation “re-education” program. The idea of this torture is to guide the sympathizer to understand something he knows but cannot remember.
While many escaped death from America’s abandonment of South Vietnam, the communist friend who stayed is severely wounded from an American napalm attack. His experience in recovery from the severe wounds, and life under communist rule appears to have taught him an indelible lesson. That indelible lesson is what the sympathizer has forgotten to remember.
The communist friend asks the sympathizer what is most important about being either a citizen of America or of Vietnam. After many days of sleep deprivation, the sympathizer says it is freedom and independence. Wrong says the friend. After more sleepless days and nights, the sympathizer says death. This is progress says his friend but wrong again. Finally, after more wakeful nights, the sympathizer answers the question correctly. The answer is a seven letter word–nothing. The answer cuts through nationalist political ideology. The inference is that all people are subject to the sins of being human. People are citizens of the world; not of any one nation. Death may be an escape from the chains of nationalism but believing in nothing offers opportunity to live.