By Viet Thanh Nguyen
Grove Press. 371 pp. $26 nolead ends
From Michael Herr's
to Denis Johnson's
Tree of Smoke
, from Oliver Stone's
to Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.," the American experience in Vietnam has been closely examined and obsessed over, its human cost and toll on the national psyche put under the microscope in fiction, film, and song for decades.
The Vietnamese experience, in particular the North Vietnamese experience, is less familiar. Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer is an ambitious, sparklingly executed first novel that redresses that imbalance in unexpected ways.
It's not a conventional war novel. The Sympathizer opens with the fall of Saigon in 1975, with its title character - identified only as The Captain - helping his South Vietnamese superior The General escape, headed first to a refugee camp in Guam, and then to Los Angeles.
But The Captain is not the loyal aide-de-camp The General thinks he is. In fact, he's a North Vietnamese spy. He's a mole skilled at role-playing because - as the U.S.-educated bastard son of a Vietnamese mother and a French Catholic priest - his identity is fluid, his otherness a constant, whether meeting with Viet Cong contacts or working in the Department of Oriental Studies at a California university.
The Sympathizer is styled as a confession, an effort by The Captain to explain himself, and its great strength is its narrative voice. He's highly critical of American imperialism and culture while being simultaneously drawn to the land of Benjamin Franklin and The Jeffersons, of Superman and the Super Bowl.
"Was there ever a country that coined so many 'super' terms from the federal bank of its narcissism?" he asks. "Was not only superconfident but also truly superpowerful, that would not be satisfied until it locked every nation of the world into a full nelson and made it cry Uncle Sam?"
What makes The Sympathizer enthralling, however, is that The Captain is such a compellingly complex figure, doomed to see both sides of every situation, and, like Hamlet, to be haunted by them. Not everything works. The novel's final section, which involves interrogation by torture, strains unnecessarily to stress its relevance to the War on Terror moment. The book needn't have reached for contemporary parallels: The Captain's human dilemmas are perfectly timeless on their own.