Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Sympathizer: Viet Thanh Nguyen


The Sympathizer, is the debut novel by Vietnamese American Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen. Born in Vietnam in 1971, he was taken by his family to the United States in 1975, when they fled Vietman at the end of the Vietnam/American War (1955-1975) with the fall of Saigon. He is presently an associate professor of English and of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of California.

In 2016, the book won a long list of prizes, as follows:
Pulitzer; Dayton Literary Peace Prize; Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction; Edgar Award for Best First Novel; Center for Fiction First Novel Prize; Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature; Finalist, PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

The Sympathizer is the Captain. That is the only name we are given for him. He is writing his confession in prison in Vietnam, during the reeducation process he is undergoing on his return from the States. As we read his document, we can see that he is not a true Communist. He tells his interrogator that he is a follower of the North Vietnam Communist Leader, Ho Chi Minh, and has read The Little Red Book, by Mao. He has read The Communist Manifesto, and even read Das Kapital by Karl Marx. In spite of all this education in the ideology and mythology of Communism and Socialism, he is not writing his acknowledgement of crime in the correct language. He is trying to justify his actions and state that he has been loyal as a spy for the Vietnamese Communists, living with the Americans. In the end, he realises that he has been suspect all along, as he is not a brain-washed ideologist. He mentions in his confession that he became a sympathizer with the Communists as he liked the talk of freedom, equality, and brotherhood. To the fanatic, ideologically-correct Communist, this is not enough.

He is a South Vietnamese, and is not talking the correct language of a true North Vietnamese Communist. No Marxist talk of the oppression by the Capitalists of the people, or the Colonial French of the Vietnamese people. No admitting his crime of leaving Vietnam with the Americans when Saigon fell in 1975. No admitting his crime of being contaminated by his contact with Americans.

"What is more important than independence and freedom?", asks the Commissar. "Nothing!" is the answer the Captain gives, laughing hysterically. He has seen the light, and the revelation The Commissar no longer believes in the ideology either, and the Captain never really has. The Commissar is left in Communist Vietnam, faceless and wanting to die. In the end, the Captain is forced to flee Vietnam with the other Boat People in 1978. But he still believes, with many others, in independence and freedom, and he ends by declaring, "We will live!" He is now an American.

Viet Thanh Nguyen
To bring The Sympathizer into the present day, it demonstrates that war creates refugees, who are not always welcomed by neighbouring countries. The States took 823,000 refugees, who had escaped from Vietnam; Britain accepted 19,000; France accepted 96,000; Australia and Canada accepted 137,000 each.

If the South Vietnamese people had been left to their Northern Vietnamese Communist brothers, would this perhaps have been better than foreign intervention? Were the Americans wrong in trying to contain Communism by choosing to help the government of South Vietnam? Should they have left the North Vietnamese to take over the South? Do refugees ever assimilate? Does that even matter, as long as they obey the laws of their new country? Do they bring new ideas and stimulation to their new home? Do their children assimilate and contribute to their country? Our author has!

Another subject raised is the question of how much ideologies shape societies, and people. The Captain points out that revolutionaries never rest as they are always concerned with building their Utopia, and creating it to include the whole world. Their leaders are the scholars of a society: the agitators; academics; and the media. There are many Utopias: political; religious; and social. The Sympathizer demonstrates how an ideology can tear a country apart, and destroy a people, when one group is determined to impose its worldview on everyone else. This is the great challenge facing western civilization, and the world, today. Can ideologists be persuaded to follow the moderate, pragmatic, middle road in the affairs of the world? Will the blinkered followers of each ideology always go to war with each other in an effort to impose their worldview on everyone else? Will there ever be peace on earth?

The symbology is interesting. The rape of the Veitnam woman soldier by Veitnamese males. She could be seen as representating her country. The Commisar, who is faceless when the Captain meets him again during the reeducation process.

The Sympathizer is already being seen as a classic. It is an honest book, showing both sides of what happened in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, which the Vietnamese call the American War. Thought-provoking, it raises so many questions: about war, and refugees; the destruction of a country, and it's rebuilding; the ideologies of Utopians, and the pragmatism of ordinary people. I stand in awe of this work of art, and of the author. This is a fantastic book!

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