Book review: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

For many people of my generation, the Vietnam war was a turning point that radicalized us. For the first in our lives, we saw a cruel war waged by a massive military power that used chemical and biological weapons on a massive scale against a much weaker nation and a defenseless population and whose effects will be felt for generations to come. But we also saw how that military could be defeated by a determined population that was fighting to repel foreign invaders and their local puppets. We saw first hand how the US government and its allies lied shamelessly in the effort to advance its imperialist ambitions, cloaking its real goals behind the rhetoric of democracy. That undoubtedly colored our view of geopolitics and is maybe why we saw so clearly the lies that led to the Iraq war and can also see the same dynamic trying to be resurrected against Iran.

I have read much about that war and seen films purporting to depict aspects of it. I disliked almost all the feature films about it but can strongly recommend the documentary Hearts and Minds (1974) that I reviewed here.

However I had not read any fiction based on the war until I read the novel The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen that came out just this year to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the day when the US was finally forced to leave. This much-praised book tells the story through the eyes of an unnamed protagonist who is the child of a French catholic priest in Vietnam and his young Vietnamese maid. Thus born into two worlds, he continues to straddle them all throughout his life. He is taken under the wing of an American CIA agent who sees promise in him and mentors and grooms him and he rises through the ranks of the South Vietnamese army, ending up as a captain and the trusted aide of an influential general. But at the same time, he is also a spy for the North Vietnamese and the guerilla liberation force operating in South Vietnam known as the National Liberation Front.

The narrator also has two close boyhood friends who stick together and look out for each other through adulthood, although one of them is his handler for the NLF and the other is an ardent anti-communist who never suspects that his two closest friends are working for the other side.

These multiple roles enable the narrator to tell the story of the last days of US presence in Vietnam in 1975 through the eyes of the various factions involved: The NLF, the South Vietnamese army, the Americans, Vietnamese refugees in the US, and the so-called boat people who tried to leave Vietnam after unification.

While these multiple perspectives are engrossing because they are all told as the first person experiences of the narrator, one sometimes felt that in order to place himself at the center of all these different communities, the story was a little too contrived.

The narrator chronicles well the chaos and confusion of the last days before Saigon fell and the Americans beat their hasty retreat, as the Vietnamese who had collaborated with them tried to leave as well on the last planes leaving the country, fearful of what would happen to them if they stayed behind.

The story next moves to America and the life of the expatriates and their mixed feelings towards their host nation. While they feel grateful that they are in the safety of the US, they also feel resentful and bitter at Americans for tearing up their country and promising them so many things only to abandon them at the end and leave.

The mid-section of the book has the narrator get involved as an advisor to a film about the war being made by an auteur. This is a thinly-veiled description of the filming of Apocalypse Now and the author uses it to make some pungent criticisms about how the US uses Hollywood films as propaganda weapons, forcing its own heroic version of events on the world even if it is contradicted by the facts.

[The director’s] arrogance marked something new in the world, for this was the first war in which the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created (with all due respect to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis, who never achieved global domination).

In the forthcoming Hollywood trompe l’oeil, all the Vietnamese of any side would come out poorly, herded into the roles of the poor, the innocent, the evil, or the corrupt. Our fate was not to be merely mute; we were to be struck dumb.

In an interview, author Nguyen who came as a child refugee to the US in 1975, says that as a child, seeing Hollywood films about Vietnam like Rambo and Platoon was a conflicting experience because while he liked to identify with the heroic figures, he also realized that the people these ‘heroes’ were massacring in large numbers were his own people.

I mean, “Apocalypse Now” was a movie that was very important to me, because I think I saw it when I was 10 or 11 years old, one of the early movies I saw on a VCR – totally traumatized me. My voice would shake, even 10 years later, describing a scene from the movie where, you know, the sailors massacre a sanpan full of Vietnamese civilians.

And on one hand, it’s an incredible work of art. I think – I admire that film. On the other hand, it puts me in a very difficult situation as the Vietnamese person who gets killed in the movie.

I remember seeing The Deer Hunter in the US when it came out and I simply hated it, seeing it as a racist depiction of the Vietnamese. But it garnered huge praise and won many Academy Awards, as do films even now such as Zero Dark Thirty that enable Americans to feel good about themselves after their government has done something awful.

As for Apocalypse Now, I found it to be an engrossing film but was disturbed by its portrayal of the Vietnamese. It did not help that I hated the book that inspired it, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for what I felt were its racist depictions of the Congolese people, and that some of those elements were present in this film too.

After reading this novel, I read this entertaining article and then watched the documentary Hearts of Darkness about the chaotic making of Apocalypse Now, where just about everything that could go wrong, did go wrong and there were continuous doubts as to whether the project would be abandoned.

After it was finally completed, director Francis Ford Coppola said at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, “My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam. It is what it was really like. It was crazy. The way we made it was very much like the way the Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.”

That part is true. The Vietnam war was insane. And cruel. And criminal.


  1. says

    As for Apocalypse Now, I found it to be an engrossing film but was disturbed by its portrayal of the Vietnamese. It did not help that I hated the book that inspired it, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for what I felt were its racist depictions of the Congolese people, and that some of those elements were present in this film too.

    I don’t think Apocalypse Now does too badly at showing the Americans to be horrible imperialist killers. The Vietnamese in the film are mostly non-entities, it’s true, but that’s because the movie is about Americans and the crazy dumb shit they are doing. I always felt that the Vietnamese are downplayed for a reason; it’s to show that the Americans would be violent brutes anywhere and any time to anyone based on a corrupt and corrupting militaristic and materialistic world-view. The movie could have almost been made without any Vietnamese characters at all and the place where they were fighting could just as easily have been in Afghanistan or Europe. It doesn’t matter: the results are the same.

  2. Mano Singham says


    I can’t believe I forget about that book because it is a great one. So this latest is the second novel about Vietnam I have read.


  3. says

    Conrad frustrates me so much because he’s almost there. He can see the hypocrisy of European colonialism. He can see that the treatment of the Congolese is brutal and immoral. But he can’t quite see them as humans like him.

  4. lorn says

    One difficulty Americans might have understanding the Vietnamese feeling about the situation is that we tend to see Vietnam as peaceful but for the war with the US. Many Vietnamese see the US involvement as just the middle of a longer arc with ancient and intermittent border conflicts with China anchoring one end, the fight against the Japanese in WW2, the fight against the French, the war with the US, a four week invasion by China in 1979 that cost tens of thousands of lives, and the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia (1978 to 92) for the best of all possible reasons. At every stage the Vietnamese paid a high price in blood but were able to defeat or fight to a draw all comers. Yes, the war against the US was long (1955 to 75, 20 years) and bloody (over a million killed by some estimates) but it was just part of a 60 year arc.

    Few people are aware of this:

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