Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Man of Two Faces

The SympathizerThe Sympathizer 
by Viet Thanh Nguyen

"I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.  I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such.  I am simply able to see any issue from both sides." (p 1)

I do not always enjoy reading prize-winning books but this is one that is not only enjoyable but also suspenseful and historical. It is a unique mix of realistic action and superb emotional detail. The author also filled it with literary references beginning with the opening lines -- a clever allusion to the great novel, Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison.

The novel has an anonymous narrator who lives a complicated and fascinating life as a double agent, publicly serving as an aide to a South Viet Namese general while secretly being a spy for North Viet Nam. He is conflicted about where he stands within his political beliefs and in the world itself. His efforts to survive in two worlds at once lead him into complicated and exciting situations as the novel progresses.

When the story begins, the narrator, who remains unnamed throughout the novel, is being held captive and forced to write his confession for the commandant. He begins his confession at a point in time when he is still in Vietnam and Saigon is about to fall. This leads to one of the most suspenseful sections of the story as he and the General's entourage attempt to escape from Saigon during the last days before the city succumbs to the North Viet Namese troops. They succeed and he returns to Los Angeles where he had previously attended school.

The theme of Betrayal pervades the novel. From the beginning the narrator is a man whose life is filled with moments of betrayal. His first betrayal is in that he keeps his identity as a communist a secret from one of his best friends, Bon. He and Man lie to Bon about their political views and even lie to him by saying that Man will be following them to America as they leave Vietnam because they know Bon will not go otherwise. The narrator really lives a life in which he must betray someone on a daily basis while he is a spy.

There is also a theme of doubling as the narrator is a double agent. But the narrator is “double” in another significant sense that frames this work: He’s biracial, with a Vietnamese mother and a French father, a mixed-race “bastard” who is bullied and ostracized his whole life.

As the story unfolds, the narrator is increasingly hard to figure. He has a few friends in L.A. and an American girlfriend, but he seems perpetually unmoored. Even though he is writing a confession, he often straddles the two opposing sides, sympathizing with “the enemy,” so that he operates from a murky morality. He is a communist but not a particularly ideological or zealous one.

The novel contains comic moments to offset the suspense of the action and the emotional tension of maintaining a double life. While it turns darker in the final section when the narrator returns to Viet Nam with the General to assist the resistance, the fine writing carries you through to the end. The totality of the story provides a new and interesting perspective on a moment in American history that many like myself lived through. This inventive tale is above all a great read that I would recommend to anyone interested in the history of our not too distant past.

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Stephen said...

Being between worlds is a problem I think we will see more and more of as cultures continue to blend in to one another. But that can exist within a single country, too, if someone jumps income tax brackets: for instance, while I'm most comfortable around the people I grew up with, I have almost nothing to talk about with them because I was never into football and hunting. The people I CAN have conversations with, the wealthier sort of intellectuals, I'm not comfortable around....even though I've spent years with some and am no longer intimidated by their supposedly superior education. (Their educations are specialized, I've found, so they're no more broadly curious about the world than the guys I grew up with!)

The effect is like being on a social island. Fortunately I have friends who are in the same position!

Another book in this vein is Ha Jin's "Map of Betrayal", about a Chinese spy living in the US who comes to love both America and China despite supposedly serving one at the expense of the other.

Brian Joseph said...

Great review James.

This book also sounds very good. The main character sounds so interesting. I love the fact that he straddles both sides. I think that this has been true of many real historical characters.

James said...


Thanks for your recommendation of the book by Ha Jin; I will have to consider that for my future reading.

James said...


The novel portrayed several interesting characters centered on the narrator. The notion of being two-sided and doubting one's own mind and morals is a theme that has seldom been considered so well as in this novel.