The Sympathizer: Grappling with the Memories of War

By Dan-Ha Le

“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am a man of two minds”

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer
Viet Thanh Nguyen: 'I always felt displaced no matter where I was' |  Fiction | The Guardian

The Sympathizer, a Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen, tells the story of a Communist spy in the South Vietnamese army, whose mission is to flee to America with the remnants of the Diem regime and report back on possible insurgent efforts. Aside from grappling with the trauma of displacement within the Vietnamese diaspora in America, Viet Thanh Nguyen illustrated the struggles of living with a double-identity through the torn conscience of his protagonist. 

In 1975, Viet Thanh Nguyen fled Vietnam and came to America with his family by boat. Upon arrival, they were placed in a refugee camp and were later forced to separate to live with their respective sponsors while they awaited citizenship. His family was eventually able to reunite, settling in San Jose, California. Growing up as both American and Vietnamese, Nguyen had always felt like an intruder: an American spying on his very Vietnamese family, but also Vietnamese spying on his very American society. In fact, this experience is what inspired the The Sympathizer protagonist’ profession as a double-spy.

 As the bastard son of a Vietnamese single mother in rural Central Vietnam, the protagonist had always hated his father for making him a bastard, of mixed blood no less. Half-French, half-Vietnamese, not Vietnamese enough to be respected by his countrymen, not quite French enough to be heralded as a Westerner, the protagonist has long resigned to receiving unjust verbal abuse and harassment: “the baby-faced guard who comes to check on [him] every day calls [him] a bastard whenever he feels like it”. 

The theme of double-identity is central to the message of The Sympathizer. A true and committed believer of the Communist cause, the unnamed protagonist volunteered to infiltrate the lives of his enemies in order to advance the operations of liberating Saigon from American grasp. After years of going undercover, the protagonist successfully carried out the missions he was given, while adjusting perfectly into his double-life. Eventually, the protagonist unintentionally develops sympathy and familial bonds with the enemy, while trying desperately to hold onto the ideology that painted his missions’ bigger picture. The two minds and identities that the protagonist assumed onto himself drift further apart to the point where he had to face the deeper political nuances of the Vietnam War, as well as his role within it.   

As a Vietnamese who was born and raised in Vietnam, the history lessons that I was taught and the historical narrative that I draw from is vastly different from that of Nguyen and my Vietnamese-American peers. Yet The Sympathizer forces one to come face-to-face with the duality, or rather, manifold nature of history. As much as the protagonist wanted to possess one and only one identity, the social nuances that envelope his existence compel him to wrestle with the morally ambiguous nature of history and war, to reconcile two adverse observations of the same truth.

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