By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Viet Thanh Nguyen
Narration by: Francois Chau
“The Sympathizer” defines the idea of a world citizen. It is the first novel of Viet Thanh Nguyen. In the beginning, “The Sympathizer” seems like another version of a war Americans would like to forget. Chugging through the story a listener nearly derails but the denouement spectacularly realigns the senses.
As is widely acknowledged, America’s abandonment of Vietnam in 1973 left thousands of South Vietnamese soldiers in peril. In 1975, the last American marine leaves the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon. Nguyen’s novel begins with hard decisions made by South Vietnamese commanders to identify native supporters, and their families, who would or would not be saved by American military transport. Nguyen’s main fictional character is chosen to be one of the lucky evacuees. The irony of that selection is that he is a communist sympathizer, a spy.
Nguyen’s spy is a Vietnamese outcast. He is one of the “children of the dust” noted in the musical “Miss Saigon”. He is a bastard son of a white American priest who seduces his teenage mother. As a sympathizer, he becomes an undercover agent working for a committed South Vietnamese general. It appears this communist sympathizer has gained the trust of the General by being the go-between for the murder of North Vietnam collaborators.
When evacuation from Saigon is imminent, the General asks the sympathizer to choose who should join them on their flight to America. The sympathizer has two close friends. One friend is a communist; the other is not. The three are “blood-oath” brothers, characterized as “The Three Musketeers”. The two friends are chosen by the sympathizer to go on the journey to America. The communist friend declines and stays in Vietnam to be the sympathizer’s handler; the other friend agrees to leave when his wife and son become collateral damage in the war. His communist friend tells the sympathizer to never come back to Vietnam. The significance of that statement becomes clear at the end of the story.
Most of the novel is about the sympathizer’s experience in America. He experiences a degree of freedom and independence never felt before. But he still reports to the General. His close non-communist friend is an assassin for actions demanded by the General. The sympathizer is the go-between when orders are given. The obvious irony is that this communist sympathizer carries out orders to kill suspected communist sympathizers in America when he is the penultimate sympathizer.
The General is planning an insurgent action to be organized in Thailand to attack communists in Vietnam. The sympathizer’s best friend is selected as one of the people to go to participate in the insurgency. The sympathizer asks the General to let him go. However, his primary reason for going is to protect his friend. The General initially says no but recants when another suspected spy is targeted. The General advises the go-between sympathizer that he does not feel he is qualified for the Thailand mission because he has never killed anyone himself. If he can murder the newly suspected spy, the General will let him go on the Thailand mission.
The sympathizer haphazardly murders the suspected spy and goes to Thailand. The valued meaning of the story becomes clearer. The sympathizer and his friend are caught by a communist cadre. The cadre is led by the communist friend (the third musketeer) that told the sympathizer to never come back to Vietnam. Both the sympathizer and the non-communist friend are imprisoned, under the command of their communist friend. Under the guise of communist re-education, the communist friend protects his two blood-brothers. The sympathizer is protected by his friend by using sleep deprivation to make him understand something he knows but cannot remember; the other is left to be physically tortured by camp rules, but not killed because of the camp commander’s orders.
While many escaped death from America’s abandonment of the South Vietnamese, the communist friend who stayed is severely wounded from an American napalm attack. His experience from the severe wounds and life under communist rule appears to have taught him an indelible lesson.
The communist friend asks the sympathizer what is most important about being either a citizen of America or of Vietnam. After many days of sleep deprivation, the sympathizer says it is freedom and independence. Wrong says the friend. After more sleepless days, the sympathizer says death. Wrong again. Finally, after more wakeful nights, the sympathizer answers the question correctly.
The answer is a seven letter word–nothing. The answer cuts through political ideology. All people are human beings; subject to the sins of being human. All people are citizens of the world.