The 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.


So begins the confession of an unnamed Captain, aide to a General who escaped Vietnam at the end of the war on the last plane to America as the communists rolled into Saigon. Was it the Vietnam war or the American war? It depends which country you come from. This duality plays a significant role in the book, someone who was a communist but played the part of the other side. A man who had a French father and a Vietnamese mother so never really fitted in and was constantly reminded that he was a bastard. As the story is told, duality is shown at every step of the way with ‘passions running hot and food getting cold’, innocence and guilt, the yin and yang of American politics – Black and White. White as a symbol of purity and innocence but also death and mourning.

. . . most of our fellow exiles had been shrunken by their experience, either absolutely through the aforementioned maladies of migration, or relatively, surrounded by Americans so tall they neither looked through or looked down on the newcomers. They simply looked over them.


Imagine how tiring it must be to see both sides of everything but overall to hate your time in America and how you are treated, never able to let go of the old and completely embrace the new. The book was a searing inditement of Hollywood with Nguyen referring to it as the propaganda arm of the USA. Films about the war in Vietnam make the Americans look like the victors and seem to rewrite the history of that era when in fact America lost at great expense to the country.

Movies were America’s way of softening up the rest of the world, Hollywood relentlessly assaulting the mental defenses of audiences with the hit, the smash, the spectacle, the blockbuster, and, yes, even the box office bomb.


There is a section in the book where the Captain is called to be the adviser to a film that is being produced by someone known as the Auteur. I wondered if that was also what the narrator of the book was as well. In the film, the Vietnamese were overlooked, underpaid, given no speaking parts and generally unwanted. There is a rape scene in the film which the Captain knew was included but didn’t see until he watched the whole film and it was as this point, if he didn’t know it already, that his work with the film crew had been for nothing.

Not to own the means of production can lead to premature death, but not to own the means of representation is also a kind of death


There then appears later in the book the rape of an agent that the Captain was forced to watch and which he had ‘forgotten’ about and not included in his confession. He did nothing to intervene and prevent it or stop it and this I think is meant to be symbolic of himself, the war and his country. You might be a double agent but what have you achieved?

In yoga we are constantly striving for the moment when ‘duality ceases’. The moment when the pull of gravity can be experienced alongside the upward thrust of energy and you are at ‘one’ with it. And in the book, duality ceases after torture and torment when the Captain accepts himself and what he has done and at this point ‘I’ is used as a pronoun. Duality ceases.

At the end of the book they become ‘boat people’ but swear that they will live.

This is a challenging book that has to be read slowly to fully understand it. It attacks and defends identity, betrayal and loyalty in the context of war. And it is messy.

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