Book Notes: The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Read Nov 2, 2021 - Nov 17, 2021

Nothing I write can do justice to this novel. Nothing I write can adequately convey the heftiness of the subject.

The Sympathizer tells the story of a Viet Cong spy embedded as a captain in the South Korean army. The action starts during the last days of the war and takes us through his exile to the US, as part of the “enemy” army in which he is embedded, and to his eventual return to Vietnam.

There are themes, of course, of war and colonization. But also of immigration and, mainly, of the atrocious choices and unspeakable acts we commit in the name of ideals and for those who we love.

There is much compassion and warmth towards the characters, no matter their allegiance. The unique sense of humor and original turns of phrase help make it all more digestible. A haunting, deceptively readable book.

Book Highlights

No, we fought to the tunes of love songs, for we were the Italians of Asia.

What was it like to live in a time when one’s fate was not war, when one was not led by the craven and the corrupt, when one’s country was not a basket case kept alive only through the intravenous drip of American aid?

After the tenth putsch, I accepted the absurd state of our state with a mix of despair and anger, along with a dash of humor, a cocktail under whose influence I renewed my revolutionary vows.

Although every country thought itself superior in its own way, was there ever a country that coined so many “super” terms from the federal bank of its narcissism, was not only superconfident but also truly superpowerful, that would not be satisfied until it locked every nation of the world into a full nelson and made it cry Uncle Sam?

We had been forced to adapt to ten years of living in a bubble economy pumped up purely by American imports; three decades of on-again, off-again war, including the sawing in half of the country in ’54 by foreign magicians and the brief Japanese interregnum of World War II; and the previous century of avuncular French molestation.

I am merely noting that the creation of native prostitutes to service foreign privates is an inevitable outcome of a war of occupation, one of those nasty little side effects of defending freedom that all the wives, sisters, girlfriends, mothers, pastors, and politicians in Smallville, USA, pretend to ignore behind waxed and buffed walls of teeth as they welcome their soldiers home, ready to treat any unmentionable afflictions with the penicillin of American goodness.

Catatonic on his bunk, Bon would remember nothing of the evacuation playing on television that afternoon and through the next day. Nor would he remember how, in the barracks and tents of our temporary city, thousands of refugees wailed as if attending a funeral, the burial of their nation, dead too soon, as so many were, at a tender twenty-one years of age.

I received an invitation to the grand opening of his new business on Hollywood Boulevard, a liquor store whose existence in the Cyclopean eye of the IRS meant that the General had finally conceded to a basic tenet of the American Dream. Not only must he make a living, he must also pay for it.

By the time I returned to campus, however, the students were of a new breed, not interested in politics or the world like the previous generation. Their tender eyes were no longer exposed daily to stories and pictures of atrocity and terror for which they might have felt responsible, given that they were citizens of a democracy destroying another country in order to save it. Most important, their lives were no longer at stake because of the draft.

We used fish sauce the way Transylvanian villagers wore cloves of garlic to ward off vampires, in our case to establish a perimeter with those Westerners who could never understand that what was truly fishy was the nauseating stench of cheese. What was fermented fish compared to curdled milk?

Did anyone ask John F. Kennedy if he spoke Gaelic and visited Dublin or if he ate potatoes every night or if he collected paintings of leprechauns? So why are we supposed to not forget our culture? Isn’t my culture right here since I was born here?

He was more embarrassed and discreet about sex than about things I thought more difficult, like killing people, which pretty much defined the history of Catholicism, where sex of the homo, hetero, or pederastic variety supposedly never happened, hidden underneath the Vatican’s cassocks.

Ties, handkerchiefs, and socks were thrown in, though what was really needed was cologne, even of the gigolo kind, anything to mask the olfactory evidence of their having been gleefully skunked by history.

I pitied the French for their naïveté in believing they had to visit a country in order to exploit it. Hollywood was much more efficient, imagining the countries it wanted to exploit.

His arrogance marked something new in the world, for this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created (with all due respect to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis, who never achieved global domination).

But a guarantee to be allowed to pursue the jackpot of happiness? Merely an opportunity to buy a lottery ticket. Someone would surely win millions, but millions would surely pay for it.

The paper with which the West wiped itself was softer than the paper with which the rest of the world blew its nose, although this was only a metaphorical comparison.

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. For if we are represented by others, might they not, one day, hose our deaths off memory’s laminated floor?

Refugee, exile, immigrant—whatever species of displaced human we were, we did not simply live in two cultures, as celebrants of the great American melting pot imagined. Displaced people also lived in two time zones, the here and the there, the present and the past, being as we were reluctant time travelers.

I’m dying because this world I’m living in isn’t worth dying for! If something is worth dying for, then you’ve got a reason to live.

The only problem with not talking to oneself was that oneself was the most fascinating conversational partner one could imagine. Nobody had more patience in listening to one than oneself, and while nobody knew one better than oneself, nobody misunderstood one more than oneself.

We can argue about the causes for these wars and the apportioning of blame, but the fact is that war begins, and ends, over here, with the support of citizens for the war machine, with the arrival of frightened refugees fleeing wars we have instigated.

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