This article mentions the novel’s portrayal of sexual assault.
After I finished reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, it felt like my world had been rocked. It was similar to the way I felt after finishing Brave New World and 1984, as though something about the way I saw the world had shifted. I felt shaky and exhausted but also invigorated.
I picked up the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel at Union Station last year, and I finished reading it now, as I begin my time abroad in Dublin for the semester. When reading such highly acclaimed novels, it feels like they’ve got a lot to live up to, and this one definitely delivered.
The Sympathizer follows the life of an undercover communist agent working for a Vietnamese republican general. When they’re forced to evacuate Saigon, the agent returns to America, where he attended college. Despite being set during the contentious Vietnam War, many of Nguyen’s observations on race and the power and influence of whiteness still ring true.
Vietnamese or American. Vietnamese or French. Communist or republican. Pulled in every direction. The Sympathizer expertly captures the tug of war that is duality of identity. The unnamed main character is stretched between identities, sometimes asked to choose and other times not given a choice, his identity decided for him instead.
“They, too, fabricated a portmanteau word to describe my kind, the Amerasian,” Nguyen writes. “Although a misnomer when applied to me, I could hardly blame Americans for mistaking me as one of their own, since a small nation could be founded from the tropical offspring of the American GI. This stood for Government Issue, which is also what the Amerasians are.”
The agent’s mother was a poor Vietnamese woman, thirteen at the time his father, a French priest, began sleeping with her. Because of his dual identity, he is scorned by Vietnamese people, condemned to perpetual bachelorhood and ridicule.
The agent is forced to do horrible things, to commit murder, all in defense of a general with whom he doesn’t agree, while gathering intel for his true communist cause. These murders haunt him, and he sees the faces of his victims everywhere he goes.
The novel is violent. It’s brutal. It’s gritty. It’s compelling. It’s shockingly real. It’s insightful, and it’s poignant.
First and foremost, Nguyen skilfully unpacks Orientalism characteristic of the time, and still present today. The novel is worth reading for its social commentary alone, plot notwithstanding.
When the main character arrives back in the U.S., he accepts a position working in the Department of Oriental Studies at a university. There, he meets Sofia Mori, a Japanese-American woman and avid anti-war protestor.
The Department Chair is an older white man married to a woman “somewhere between one-half and two-thirds his age,” named Ling Ling who he met in Taiwan. The Department Chair makes disturbing comments about the resiliency of her genes in relation to their children, at one point stating, “Mixing native flora with a foreign plant oftentimes has tragic consequences, as your own experience may have taught you.”
The crux of the Department Chair’s character is that he means well. He demonstrates expertly that casual racism is often just as pernicious as blatant racism because it hides in plain sight, its perpetrators believing themselves progressive and enlightened.
The Department Chair assigns the main character homework, asking him to write down his “Oriental and Occidental qualities,” an exercise in indexing himself for the benefits of the Chair’s “students of Oriental ancestry.” The agent concocts a tongue-in-cheek list of stereotypical, diametrically opposed qualities, which the Department Chair takes as a serious reflection of inner turmoil.
He describes the “severe problems of identity suffered by Americans of Oriental ancestry,” that they are “split down the middle.” He believes the Amerasian offers hope: “You embody the symbiosis of Orient and Occident, the possibility that out of two can come one…. But while you are out of place today, in the future you will be the average! Look at my Amerasian child. A hundred years ago, he would have been seen as a monstrosity, whether in China or in America. Today, the Chinese would still see him as anomalous, but here we have made steady progress forward, not as fast as you or I would like, yet enough to hope that when he reaches your age no opportunity will be denied him. Born on this soil, he could even be president!”
The Chair believes the agent could be an “ideal translator between two sides,” encouraging him to cultivate his so-called innate American reflexes to “counterweigh [his] Oriental instincts.”
“Would it make any difference if I told you I was actually Eurasian, not Amerasian?” the narrator asks. The Chair responds, “No, dear boy, absolutely not.”
Sofia Mori describes the way she initially felt about the narrator: “At first, hearing about you and meeting you the first time, I thought, Great, here’s an Uncle Tom-a-san, a real sellout, a total whitewash….White people love you, don’t they?”
She also describes how she feels as a Japanese American constantly exoticized by the Department Chair: “When he interviewed me, he wanted to know whether I spoke any Japanese. I explained that I was born in Gardena. He said, Oh, you nisei, as if knowing that one word means he knows something about me. You’ve forgotten your culture, Ms. Mori, even though you’re only second generation. Your issei parents, they hung on to their culture. Don’t you want to learn Japanese? Don’t you want to visit Nippon? For a long time I felt bad. I wondered why I didn’t want to learn Japanese, why I didn’t already speak Japanese, why I would rather go to Paris or Istanbul or Barcelona rather than Tokyo. But then I thought, Who cares? Did anyone ask John F. Kennedy if he spoke Gaelic and visited Dublin or if he ate potatoes every night or if he collected paintings of leprechauns?”
Despite the artfulness of this novel, the intricacies with which Nguyen explores and pushes the boundaries of language, his female characters are lacking. They are deified mothers, prostitutes, dutiful wives, sexual objects, or challenges. Sophia Mori, arguably the most compelling female character—one actually given complex dialogue—is ultimately defined by her romantic relationship with the main character and her subsequent grief over the loss of a different romantic interest.
The female characters in this novel are brutalized and violated, simply to emphasize the mental scars imparted upon the men by their experience in war. They are oversexualized and ignored. An actress is raped in a Hollywood movie depiction of the war to symbolize the way the country itself has been violated, and everyone watches in horror. But the feelings of the woman are never given space to breathe. A communist agent woman is raped, and the author focuses on the fact that the main character had to watch it happen, had to witness the savagery, not on its impact on the woman herself.
The narrator describes the prostitution he encounters at a Vietnamese refugee camp as such: “I am merely noting that the creation of native prostitutes to service foreign privates is an inevitable outcome of a war of occupation, one of those nasty little side effects of defending freedom that all the wives, sisters, girlfriends, mothers, pastors, and politicians in Smallville, USA, pretend to ignore behind waxed and bugged walls of teeth as they welcome their soldiers home, ready to treat any unmentionable afflictions with the penicillin of American goodness.”
He also describes Western sexualization of Asian women in a way that demonstrates self-awareness. But a self-aware sexualizer is still a sexualizer. He talks about “the schoolgirl’s white ao dai that had sent many a Western writer into near-pederastic fantasies about the nubile bodies whose every curve was revealed without displaying an inch of flesh except above the neck and below the cuffs. This the writers apparently took as an implicit metaphor for our country as a whole, wanton and yet withdrawn, hinting at everything and giving away nothing in a dazzling display of demureness, a paradoxical incitement to temptation, a breathtakingly lewd exhibition of modesty.”
Ultimately, true to its title, this book is an exercise in sympathy. It tests the main character’s capacity to sympathize with those around him, weighing their lives in his hands against the commands of the general. It describes the limited sympathy that whiteness has for those it conquers, for the Vietnamese people who never asked for violent warfare to uproot their country. It pushes the limits of a reader’s sympathy for a main character torn between worlds, forced to commit murder, complicit in rape and devastation. And it makes you reconsider your own moral code, which makes for an earth-shaking, foundation-altering novel. Read only if emotionally and mentally prepared.