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The Sympathizer: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) Paperback – April 12, 2016
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The winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as five other awards, The Sympathizer is the breakthrough novel of the year. With the pace and suspense of a thriller and prose that has been compared to Graham Greene and Saul Bellow, The Sympathizer is a sweeping epic of love and betrayal. The narrator, a communist double agent, is a “man of two minds,” a half-French, half-Vietnamese army captain who arranges to come to America after the Fall of Saigon, and while building a new life with other Vietnamese refugees in Los Angeles is secretly reporting back to his communist superiors in Vietnam. The Sympathizer is a blistering exploration of identity and America, a gripping espionage novel, and a powerful story of love and friendship.
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This is the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam war and the dislocation to America told from an Asian perspective, and a story non-Asian Americans should read if only for that viewpoint. But there is so much more: brilliant writing and beautiful prose that is often hilarious, and always thought-provoking. "I calmed the tremor in my gut. I was in close quarters with some representative of the most dangerous creature in the history of the world, the white man in a suit." Or, "you must claim America, she said. America will not give itself to you. If you do not claim America, if America is not in your heart, America will throw you into a concentration camp, or a reservation or a plantation."
This is not an easy book to read--and no, not because there aren't quotation marks. God help some of these reviewers if they ever pick up Virginia Woolf or James Joyce. At times though the scenes of torture and rape are sickening and the author's pov about American hegemony (cultural and political) is going to disturb many. But it is challenging in the very best way. The Sympathizer does what great literature is supposed to do--force us out of our comfort zone to rethink assumptions. This wonderful, disturbing, challenging novel will do more than that--it will affirm something indomitable and essential about us all--a desire to carry on, and to live.
The captain's otherness allows him to see Vietnam and America with a clarity that enlightens us as readers. While much of his story is devoted to how badly Americans understood the Vietnamese people, he also skewers partisans on both sides of the divide within his home country. His encounters with military, political and academic experts of all sorts reveal the ideological blinders that shaped their beliefs and horrific violence of the war. In the end, though, the story is about his struggle to come to terms with his own participation in that violence. What he did and did not do weigh heavily on his conscience.
Though his story is a serious one, Nguyen writes with a comic touch that belies the tragedy all around. "The Sympathizer" deserves comparisons with "Catch 22" as a classic dark comedy about war.