The Sympathizer REVIEW
“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds, . . . able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent,” he continues, but “I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you — that is a hazard.”
Viet Thanh Ngoyen’s Pulitzer prize winning novel about the Vietnam War’s impact on Vietnamese people begins by introducing us to an unnamed Vietnamese spy, wring his confession. On many layers he is confused about his identity. Son of a Vietnamese mother he loves and a Catholic priest he despises, born in the North of Vietnam but serving in the South, educated in America in American culture but in love with Vietnam and its culture, serving as a South Vietnamese adjutant to a General, he serves the interests of the communist north by spying for them. He despises the way that American’s portray Vietnamese people in their films about the war and yet serves as a consultant on the biggest Vietnam War blockbuster yet. All the while, he is devoted to two blood brothers from childhood, one a CIA assassin in the Phoenix program, the other a Communist commissar. he can never seem to entirely gain a sense of who he is.
As the New York Time review of the book puts it, “Duality is literally in the protagonist’s blood.”
I thought I was really going to enjoy the book as it promised to introduce me to a person who is a caricature of me in some ways. But I could not finish it. By the time he is captured by his friend Man and tortured into confessing his “sins” it starts to feel like drinking napalm.
And speaking of drinking – I suspect that you could not find a page of this book that does not refer to alcohol. The writer is constantly navigating his way through life with Cognac, Martinis, beer, whiskey, bourbon, wine, vodka, etc. HE uses it to steel himself to acts of violence and betrayal that controvert his moral compass. He uses it to drown the guilt after. He uses it to think and to stop thinking. He uses it to lower inhibitions that he wishes he had not lowered later. Fortunately he has alcohol to atone. One almost senses that, having two selves, he is constantly having to “put one of them down” so as to give the other freedom to act. Alcohol is like a Phoenix program that assassinates some part of himself in his own internal identity Vietnam War.
Someone told me once that “integrity is when what you think, what you feel, what you say, what you do and who you are all come from the same place.” The main character of The Sympathizer is deeply and profoundly integrity impoverished. And he pays.
I wish I could finish the book but – it started crossing lines.
Question for Comment: Some people would argue that books and movies are an addictive coping mechanism for dealing with unresolvable tears in the soul. What do you think?