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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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I mention all of the above to point out the irony that is inherent in this novel. "The Sympathizer" is blind to the present as it chronicles the stories of several members of the South Vietnamese forces at the very end of the war (1975) into the early 1980s. The central character among them is the right hand man of a powerful general--the acting head of the national police in the waning days of the Saigon government--whose personal history puts him at odds with all daily reality. He was born a Northerner--therefore existentially suspect by all Southerners; he is half-French-therefore someone to be disdained by the instinctively atavistic and/or racist Vietnamese; he is a mole for the Viet Cong in the midst of the Saigon power structure; he is U.S. educated--forcing him to hold some admiration for the country he is working against and making him (mostly against his will) more self-critical of his own society and culture; he is an exile in the U.S. after the fall of Saigon--a place he hates and admires at the same time. Ultimately, he becomes the prototype of a man without a country and the archtypical cynic. All that happens in this striking novel about the tragedy of war and its aftermath revolves around this brilliantly conceived character.
As engrossing as this book was for me, I can't say that it was easy to read at all times. The driving themes of loss, betrayal, lack of compassion, and paucity of hope for the future are hard for the reader to deal with in a long novel. This was even more difficult for me as i have known and loved the country first hand in some of its worst days of trouble and find it difficult to see much merit in the U.S. intervention and prolongation of what was essentially a civil war. I wonder if author Viet Thanh Nguyen has another book in mind that would take his protagonist in "The Sympathizer" into the present.
In any event, this is a fascinating and worthwhile story even without any knowledge of the time setting. Highly recommended.
The novel is presented as the memoir of a young officer in the South Vietnamese army and secret police during the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese Communist army. He is a traitor, a secret Communist operative, who routinely sends all of the confidential information he receives to his boyhood buddy, a Communist intelligence officer also hidden within the South Vietnamese army.
In addition to his emotional confusion -- posing as an anti-communist while actually helping the Communists -- the anti-hero is also biracial -- his father was a French Roman Catholic priest who seduced his teenage Vietnamese mother. He has grown up being insulted by many Vietnamese as a "bastard."
Allegedly, his dual ethnic identity makes him a better spy -- treated with suspicion by all, he is the last to be suspected of any crimes -- it's just assumed that a 'bastard' will be grateful for his employment and loyal. His friendly, non-judgmental manner and willingness to listen have made him the "sympathizer."
The book is well-written, with vivid evocations of the weather, culture, people and atmosphere of wartime Saigon, and the Vietnamese refugee groups in America and Asia after the war. This is the material of a gripping psychological thriller, but the author chose to write the book as a black comedy.
The problem with the book is that even with the greater latitude given by the black comedy genre, the protagonist does not come across as a real Communist operative or as a 1970's Vietnamese. To remain a "sleeper agent" for years requires profound ideological convictions and commitment, but the novel's protagonist is very cynical about everything and dotes on the West's alcohol, sex and material comforts.
He seems seldom or never to have read any Communist texts -- the first quotations that appear in his head in most situations are from Western or Vietnamese pop songs. The tone of the memoirs is cool, remote, post-modern -- the author doesn't convey the intensity of the Communists of that era, who were very heavily indoctrinated and passionate.
I remember the Vietnam War vividly, and the novel is not written in a 1970's voice. There's a lot of disguised sociological commentary on problems of race, gender, etc., that are made from a viewpoint not common in that era, though very common now.
The author is a Gen X Vietnamese-American academic, who came to the U.S. as a child with his parents. It's clear that he's done tons of research on the Vietnam War and has listened diligently to many stories from Vietnamese who lived through it. His anti-hero feels like a coolly detached Gen X or Millenial suddenly dropped back about 40 years in time.
The novel will be of interest to Vietnam War history buffs, military readers of all types, and people interested in the history of Vietnam. I think it would have worked better as a "return to former homeland by child of exiles" type novel, where the author's irony and distance from his subject would have meshed better with the black comedy format.