In schools throughout the country, American children and teenagers tend to learn about the Vietman War—and by extension, the country of Vietnam—through the prism of U.S. culture. This is not merely to reaffirm that entrenched ideas and predilections form our understanding of historical events, but also that early conversations about the war often gravitate away from Vietnam-as-place-and-people, and toward what Vietnam-as-idea sparked in the American consciousness. Student-led protests, the creation of the most talked-about countercultural movement in our history, the unthinkable fallibility of the American military—even Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles are all likely to be mentioned before Ho Chi Minh or Saigon. To young Americans, if not most Americans, Vietnam is a jungle in which unlucky youths fought and died before they lost a war, came back home, and started their American families.
Dehumanization is a part of art, war, and life; it can be both a shield and a sword. American art mines senseless loss and unspeakable atrocities for poignant drama, political insights, and moral ironies, and does so expertly. But before a deathly moment of horror, there is a life that has been lived, regardless of the hemisphere in which it was. What does it mean to engage with a subject containing the histories and hopes of an entire people about whom we know so little?
The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s complex and compelling first novel, confronts us with that difficult and often discomfiting question. Ostensibly a tale of subterfuge, the novel makes use of an engaging narrator and tackles issues of artistic representation and cultural identity. Its narrator is the half-Vietnamese, half-French (and therefore worthy of scorn and distrust from many of his fellow Vietnamese) aide to a jingoistic, uncompromising South Vietnamese general. He is also a mole, working undercover for the communist regime; we learn on the first page that his story is a confession beginning in April 1975, shortly before the fall of Saigon: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.”