Sympathy for the Devils Within: A Review of Viet Nguyen’s The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Forty plus years after the U.S. abandoned Vietnam to the Communists, Viet Thanh Nguyen captures the duplicity of all sides in the war and its aftermath in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer.

Reading Nguyen reinforces my belief that I was on the right side in the 1960s when I joined the anti-war movement before it imploded in the 1970s, exhibiting similar excesses to those perpetrated by the North Vietnamese (and Cambodian) on their own people.

The American anti-war movement morphed into an anti-American movement with groups like the post-SDS Weather Underground waging war on the American working class for failure to take up arms against the American government. In Vietnam, the victorious Communists subjugated anyone and everyone who had not been on their side during the war as well as those who had been on their side for the wrong reason.

It is easy to see in retrospect how the anti-American left could ally itself with the North Vietnamese ignoring their commitment to the same totalitarian ideology that had led to the deaths of millions of Russians and Chinese citizens under Stalin and Mao.

The victorious Vietnamese employed torture methods invented by the Russian and Chinese Communists including re-education techniques where confession is offered as the means to salvation. Smartly, Nguyen employs confession as the format for this novel having his protagonist be made to write a confession to rehabilitate himself for having succumbed to Western ways during his exile in the U.S. The entire novel is that confession.

Nguyen deserves praise for the lack of heroes in his story––especially not his bastard protagonist who is both a captain in the South Vietnamese army and an agent of the Viet Cong, and who commits multiple crimes, including murder, out of this divided loyalty. No one is clean perhaps with the exception of the protagonist’s mother who was forcibly impregnated by a French priest and then abandoned to a slow death of poverty and neglect.

Nguyen holds the French and United States responsible for their part in the war’s horrors, but doesn’t absolve the Vietnamese people on both sides, for each played a part in the war, victimizing their own as the price for the victory that one side failed to achieve and the other converted into a kind of defeat.

For Americans, The Sympathizer reminds us the ideals of our founding are not sufficient to protect us against the arrogance that led us to think no price was too high to prevent Vietnam from falling to the Communists. Unfortunately, we continue to pay that price, often misjudging where our national interest lies. There is no more evident an example of this failure than Barack Obama’s ignoring the Iranian government’s murderous ideology out of some misguided desire to make amends for America’s past sins.

Yes, Communism had to be opposed and American aid for people suffering under Communism or on the verge of falling under Communism’s iron yoke at times required a military response, but we misjudged Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese and drove them into the Communist camp, as we did in Cuba with Fidel Castro, both of whom admired America’s revolutionary commitment to individual freedom. The consequence of our arrogance was both became totalitarians who oppressed their own people, deciding their ideological goals justified any and all means of achieving those goals.

Americans should also read The Sympathizer because we have failed to recognize the price the boat people paid for their freedom, coming to the United States where they were expected to forget the U.S. role in the devastation of their country––the napalm bombings, wiping out villages suspected of harboring Viet Cong agents, the manipulation of the South Vietnam government and more, as Nguyen so skillfully portrays in this novel.

The Sympathizer is above all a brilliantly written story about a man we sympathize with while not absolving him of his crimes, but it can also be read as a form of national therapy. Nguyen offers a lens through which we can examine ourselves and perhaps recognize in ourselves a tendency to betray and murder our own, for who can say for certain they would not have acted like his main character in similar circumstances.