The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

A red cover with a yellow border features an illustration of a Vietnamese man's face. Includes award stickers for the Pulitzer Prize and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Literature

by Eric L.

I may have opened another post like this, but if you’ve not read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, do yourself a favor. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015, and awards aside, it’s a great book.  

The Sympathizer is an “epistolary-like” novel, as the entire thing is written as a confession of a spy from the north who has deeply infiltrated the south, and the American support apparatus. He is an aide to a general, and really has a good feel for the elite as well as those of lower social stature. 

Superficially, it is the story of the child of a Vietnamese teenager and a French priest, who does not fit in because of his parentage and is teased and taunted. In turn, this creates a protagonist of conflicted mind and spirit who artfully chronicles his experiences in Vietnam and America. He makes the profound comment that it is really the immigrants who should be the anthropologists of American society, as well as many other insightful observations throughout the book. 

He chronicles the chaotic escape from Vietnam (you’ve probably seen the footage) when the United States withdrew in 1975. When one views this sort of thing, they’re horrified by the carnage and desperation, but I’d not considered the bureaucratic tasks such as making lists of who evacuates and the intermediary steps. Spoiler alert: the Vietnamese don’t just land in their suburban American homes on a direct flight from Saigon. Sadly, these events seem apropos right now irrespective of your feelings about American wars and intervention globally. I could not even imagine trying to escape my country for fear of political reprisal. 

As someone of a certain generation, I grew up watching the fictional films about the Vietnam War and worried about the specter of the reinstatement of the draft. Perhaps, more broadly, the Vietnam War was the degradation of the cultural capital and hubris that the United States, as a country, carried until this loss. I always felt for the boys who were involuntarily ripped from their lives and sent across the world as soldiers in an ideological battle they likely only rudimentarily understood. It’s a logical reaction, since they were the protagonists of these films, if not the heroes at least sympathetic anti-heroes, and they were like me. 

A Vietnamese character comments that this cold war has always felt hot to them. That said, it’s enlightening for me to read a work of art by a Vietnamese expatriate like Nguyen (by the way, it’s set to be an HBO miniseries). The details concerning the quotidian lives that many of his compatriots lead in the US (California to be specific), and how it’s difficult for former men of power to become relatively powerless in their new country, are very well done. One portion of the book even chronicles the protagonist’s experience working as consultant for a movie about Vietnam, loosely based on Apocalypse Now (if you not seen this film, borrow it and watch it).  

The Sympathizer (also available as an eBook) is a page turner, a spy novel, a thriller, and oddly humorous; however, I would not describe it as straight satire. In my opinion, what makes this debut novel great is that it is the work of a free thinker and an excellent writer. It may seem banal to say that there is a lot going on in this novel (it may even be worth a second read), but I’m not sure how else to phrase this. Nguyen’s writing is dense, but not difficult to read, and the story just flows. I intend to read his collection of short stories, The Refugeesand eventually the sequel, The Committed, which was published in 2021. Try them, you may like them. 

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