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January 11, 2017

The Sympathizer

by Anne Paddock

Vietnam is a country, not a war.

The war known as the “Vietnam War” was fought by the generation before mine from the early 1960’s until 1975. In the most simplistic terms, the Vietnam war was a civil war between North and South Vietnam (sound familiar?) with the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong (a South Vietnamese Communist group) fighting to reunify Vietnam under a communist rule.

The US became involved in the conflict to prevent communism from spreading because the American leaders felt threatened by democracy’s counterpart. Russia and China backed North Vietnam while the US, South Korea, Australia and several other countries backed South Vietnam. After years of fighting, the North Vietnamese captured Saigon in 1975 ending the war (the US lost) and the two regions were reunified into a communist country.

Throughout the war years (1960’s to mid-1970’s), many Americans – especially the young adult population – opposed sending troops to Vietnam and did not support the war effort. Protests were commonplace while the US administration (primarily Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon) continued the war effort in the hopes of keeping South Vietnam from going communist.  In most people’s view, the battle was a civil war between two factions of Vietnam but where people differed is whether the US and the rest of the world should interfere in another country’s conflict. Whether or not the reader believes the US was an interventionist or an occupier is key to understanding both sides of the conflict.

The_SympathizerAfter Saigon fell, many Vietnamese fled to the United States for asylum and made new lives for themselves. One of those was 4-year old Viet Thanh Nguyen pronounced “Viet Tan Win” which sounds remarkably close to “Viet Nam Win” – an irony not lost on most readers of The Sympathizer which was written by Nguyen and published in 2015. Settling with his parents and older brother in Pennsylvania, the family eventually moved to San Jose, where his parents operated a small grocery store while focusing on the education of their two sons.

Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American in every sense of the word:  Vietnamese by birth, an American by education and citizenship and a Vietnamese-American by culture, belief, and experience. So, who better to write a novel about a war that involved the two countries in both his head and heart?

The Sympathizer is the story of a Vietnamese army captain who is a spy for the North Vietnamese and who worked undercover as an “aide-de-camp” and junior intelligence officer to a general in the South Vietnamese army. After Saigon fell, he fled to the US and continued to work undercover with the Vietnamese who refused to concede and who vowed to return to fight for democracy.

Born to a North Vietnamese teenager who was impregnated by a French Catholic priest, the protagonist often refers to himself shamefully as ‘the bastard.” He walks between two worlds growing up – the French and the Vietnamese, two worlds as a teenager when he goes to the US to be educated, two worlds when he returns to Vietnam:  North Vietnam and South Vietnam, and three worlds when he flees to the US:  America and both sides of the Vietnam dispute. Hence, it is not surprising that he is “able to see any issue from both sides” although his loyalty is to the North Vietnamese.  He is by his own description a “spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.”

The story is told as a confession by the sympathizer to “dear Commandant.” At the heart of the story is the relationship between the unnamed protagonist who is justly referred to as “the sympathizer” and his two high school Vietnamese friends, Man and Bon. With divided loyalties, the sympathizer tells the story we all – after the fact – need to hear, understand, and see. For Vietnam was not a war where 58,000 Americans were killed or a war where 3 million countrymen died but a war where 3,058,000 souls lost their lives fighting for what they believed in, as innocent casualties, or as pawns for the powerful. Lest anyone doubt the damage done by American foreign policy during the mid-20th century, look no further than The Brothers (2013) by Stephen Kinzer which details the effects of US intervention in Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Egypt, Indonesia, the Congo, British Guiana (now known as Guyana), Costa Rica, Panama, and Cuba.

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Andrew Carnegie For Excellence in Fiction, The Sympathizer reminds us that “to be capable of seeing things from multiple points of view… be capable of being sympathetic, not just with our friends but with our enemies, is perhaps not enough to prevent wars or to change the world, but it is certainly necessary if we want those things to happen.”

From 2002-2010, I lived in Europe and recall the difference in how the news was reported in Europe compared to the United States, especially on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And, more recently while traveling overseas, watching the news as reported by CNN, RT (Russia Today), CCTV (China Central Television), and Bloomberg News was an enlightening experience because the events were reported differently…not in contrast but from a different perspective with some sources reporting more information than others. The point, as put forth by Nguyen, is to be open to listen to other perspectives. You may not agree, but you will have a better understanding.

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