Title: The Sympathizer
Author: Viet Thanh Nguyen
Genre: Literary, political, drama, satire
Thoughts from a second generation Vietnamese-American:
Viet Thanh Nguyen being the first Vietnamese person to win the Pulitzer Prize caused quite a stir in my local community. I could not pass up giving this book a read. O’Brien comes to mind when most people think of Vietnam War literature, and harrowing stories of American veterans abound, yet I find it so refreshing to finally have a Vietnamese voice present to the English-speaking audience. Refugees do tell their stories, but usually not in English to be heard by the rest of the world. In this regard I think The Sympathizer’s most strongest element is Nguyen’s use of language. The novel is sprinkled with bright glimmers of insight on Asian-American politics and sociology. Through his duplicitous, well-educated, unnamed biracial narrator, Nguyen spares no side with his biting satire. American society, the southern Vietnamese resistance, and even his own side the northern Communists are all probed and critiqued by this spy, whose unique position as an outsider lends him the freedom to do so. His criticism is sharpest when he gets involved in the American film industry as a cultural consultant, earnestly attempting but failing to deliver proper Vietnamese representation in media as his opinions and efforts are undermined and largely ignored by the American filmmaker. This issue is very prevalent today, which is likely why it resonates the most with me as both a consumer and a Vietnamese person. The novel is framed as a confession the spy is writing to his communist superiors, and this writing style took some getting used to. The lack of quotation marks made it hard to distinguish between dialogue and internal monologue, which the narrator often digresses into in compelling but long paragraphs. The pacing might have suffered somewhat from this and made the novel seem longer than it should be, but it’s not enough of a detriment to make me stop reading. The writing style Nguyen chose is appropriate, given the context and narrator’s situation, even if I as the reader had to plod through some of it. The narrator is not without his flaws; throughout the novel there are instances of the male gaze that I as a woman find unlikable, but I think that contributes to the complexity of the character. Like with real people, there would be things you like and don’t like about a person. What I did like about the narrator is, like I’ve said before, his insight into Vietnamese and American culture, his position as someone with mixed heritage, and an enduring love for his mother, blood brothers, and country: emotional anchors he latches onto as he is constantly deceiving people who trust him and shifting political allegiances. Born into a family of immigrants and raised by Vietnam War refugees, I did not expect to be enthralled with the perspective of a communist spy, yet Nguyen surprised me. From the start Nguyen challenged himself by writing from a point of view most would not expect to adopt. The author, a refugee himself, chose to write from the eyes of “the enemy,” which I’d imagine is not an easy thing to do. I didn’t expect to find a communist spy relatable and even likable at times. I find myself sympathizing with the sympathizer.