It is the dazzling skill in creating a broad range of scenes that characterizes this book for me. But first, a broad outline.
The narrator is the son of a Vietnamese peasant and a priest who of course never acknowledged him. He writes in the form of a confession in an isolation cell over the course of a year. We first meet him when he is the lieutenant of a South Vietnamese General who is escaping to the US at the end of the war. He describes himself as a sympathizer, one who can see everyone's point of view, helpful to him as he is a Viet Cong spy who insinuated himself with the General and was sent by his masters to keep an eye on the expat community in the US. He is well suited to the task, having spent some years in the US as a student.
The narrator describes the horrific escape of those who managed to leave Saigon, bringing back images of Vietnamese scaling the wall of the embassy on the last day before the city fell. He tells the story of life in the US as a part of a community the Americans wish to forget. Eventually the General begins to recover his will and with funding through a Congressman who is a Vietnam veteran organizes a group to return to Vietnam.
The narrator is asked to read a movie script about the war to comment on its authenticity; he meets with "the auteur" and though he is roundly dismissed, he is later asked to accompany the company to filming in the Philippines. According to Ron Charles, this send-up of making a movie is based on Apocalypse Now and it certainly is damning. It was an extended piece of amazing writing.
Later as part of the General's plan to fight against the Communists in Vietnam the narrator meets with a group addressed by a writer called Dr. Head. My guess is that the character was another send-up, this time Henry Kissinger with a British accent. Dr. Head was a scholar and a Washington insider who briefed Congress and the President on the wonders of bombing.
And near the end of this book, the narrator asks universal and timeless questions:
What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe as so many around us apparently do in nothing? We can only answer these questions for ourselves. Our life and our death have taught us always to sympathize with the undesirables among the undesirables. Thus magnetized by experience, our compass continually points toward those who suffer.
It is painful to think about that terrible war and wonder how it is we continue to involve ourselves in disastrous adventures that don't even achieve our ill-conceived goals.
While these weighty matters are important to this book, there is more. As part of the narrator telling about his childhood, while focusing on his sainted mother and the devilish priest, he describes his own sexuality that involves something for dinner. Think Philip Roth and liver.
Viet Thanh Nguyen. The Sympathizer, Grove Press, 2015 384 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.