by Cygne Sauvage
Discussions of wars always evoke horror. Novels dealing with this genre tell of heroic tales, more often romanticized, distorted and unequivocal, of either who’s perceived as the aggressor or oppressed, depending from what points of view the stories emanate from, or the author’s ideological position.
The Sympathizer, a successful first attempt of the author Viet Than Nguyen in the sense that it won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, differs from what is considered a typical narrative of war exploits of the protagonist. In fact, Nguyen does not brand his lead character, who remains the unknown storyteller bearing only the title of the Captain relating his predilection to another unnamed superior he alludes to as the Commandant, as a paragon of a good soldier. The narrator’s exposition of events displays more, not subtly, his compunction, weaknesses and guilt, as if wanting to clarify his deeds, cleanse his soul of culpability. His actions which he succinctly owns up to all, he explains, may be irrational in periods sans armed conflict, but very pragmatic and acceptable in otherwise situations.
The tragedy in this entire tale, set in the then South Vietnam and partly in the neighboring countries of the Philippines and Thailand, is not the series of macabre mutilation of live bodies nor of the number of lives cold-bloodedly halted by trigger happy lunatics, but the absurdity of war dictated by supreme hunger for power. The lowly fighters are in the armed struggle not out of love for one’s country but because they have no choice. Either that or escape to what could be a more hellish predicament. Everybody just wants to survive, his/her reason for involvement does not go beyond, toward a much greater or nobler reason.
The Captain‘s circumstances that lead to his involvement in the war demonstrates a case in point. He is driven by his personal attachment to people engaged in the larger arena of combat. He risks his life to save his friend. Such passionate attitude and attachment originates from acquiring that sense of belongingness for the first time when these pals saved him from school bullies. Outside of this incident, the Captain has always considered himself as an outcast. As a love child of a French priest with a young Vietnamese lass, he is neither deemed as a denizen of the country where he was born, nor looked up to by his father’s compatriots as somebody among them.
But then, like himself, everyone is an outsider, that is, to the ongoing war as metaphorically exhibited in the movie, which has the semblance to “Apocalypse Now,” where he was sent on a mission. The locals are afforded mere cameo roles. His purpose to manipulate the director for more substantial characterization and participation for the Vietnamese is not accomplished, though earned him a huge compensation.
The novel’s erudite prose is a very delightful read, though at times, unnecessarily high falutin, on the verge of being grandiose. The first three chapters engender excitement and curiosity for what is thought as ostensibly mysterious plot. The reader’s mood is dampened by the succeeding sections, as the narrator’s character turns jaded, the subsequent events shallow.
Despite this, reading through this novel is not a waste of time.