How many ways can you split a noodle, nation, person? The author chose to title his debut novel “The Sympathizer” after the protagonist (who narrates the story) but he could have just as easily named it “The Bastard,” an appellation used throughout the book by the narrator and others to describe himself.
In this case the epithet isn’t used to denote character… but rather brings attention to his mixed (split) ancestry. His father was a French priest; his mother Vietnamese.
So race is one way to split a person. Another is along political lines. Emphatically so during the time/place of the Vietnam War (or Resistance War Against America, depending on your viewpoint). The narrator is a follower of Ho Chi Minh and an avid Marxist, working as a spy in the headquarters of the South Vietnamese Army during the war, and then several years later within the Vietnamese community that has settled around L.A..
He has lived among the capitalist lotus eaters and one of his closest friends (who doesn’t know his true colors) is an avid nationalist who hates communists. Oh, and here’s the real kicker – he enjoys using his mind, and has a predilection for checking his theories out with reality. That helped him become a Marxist in a colonial country, but in a Marxist country, that causes him problems.
Split, split, split. French or Vietnamese? Nationalist or Communist? Orthodox Communist or Bourgeois Deviationist?
The author’s ability to evoke the inner working of minds on both sides of the racial-political divide is amazing. On a number of occasions he uses his scalding wit to expose and reverse stereotypes commonly employed by whites against Asians. This book not only entertains and informs, it raises the consciousness of white readers.
All this within a vivid, sensory landscape that the author succeeds in creating. Be it the inside of an isolation cell, a mall in L.A., a street in Saigon or a jungle on the Vietnamese-Cambodian frontier, you are there – sometimes uncomfortably so.
Viet Thanh Nguyen places his focus on the splits within this particular protagonist, but the issue is universal and well worth exploring.
We all contain parts that differ and may even contradict each other. Our socio-political environment can often pit one part of our self against another. For example, a part aligned with an assigned gender characteristic vs. another part that doesn’t fit the gender mold.
Do we then end up considering ourselves bastards or sympathizers? Condemn ourselves for not being of one mind? Or extend understanding and compassion to the whole of us? There is no question that the author has sympathy for sympathizers rather than ideologues. It is up to each of us to see where our sympathies lie.
Frank Rubenfeld, Ph.D. is a BAGI Trainer and Faculty Member. For more, go to www.frankrubenfeld.com