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"The Sympathizer" by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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The Sympathizer forces our sympathies in the first-person narrator’s direction. His exposition of a spy’s secret and challenging life endears him to us; it’s honest, funny, even charming. Set in the years following America’s pullout of Viet Nam, Sympathizer presents us with the narrative of one man’s navigation of the treachery, prejudice, and continued illusion of those who would dream of re-establishing a capitalist regime in the South.

The story’s narrator is not named, but he works for the victorious forces of Ho Chi Minh, spying on the tatters that remain of the army of the Republic of Viet Nam. Author Viet Thanh Nguyen’s book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016, and its theme, plot, and style give ample reason. He treats American cultural imperialism, Vietnamese cunning and venality on both sides, and the helplessness of individuals in the face of powerful historical forces, with equal ease, wisdom, and a kind of fatalistic black humor.

This is a highly engaging piece. Mr. Nguyen approaches each idea and episode with an everyman’s pluck and sarcasm. His hero dabbles in some pretty nefarious activities, but when he’s forced into schemes which result in murder, the victims haunt him throughout the rest of the book. In fact, when he returns to his homeland, a spy embedded in an ill-fated recon mission with a motley group of zealots, his capture by the Communists results in imprisonment instead of the favorable treatment he would be justified in expecting.

The book has a light framework into which it fits: in his solitary confinement, he is made to write his confession, and this book is it. He seeks to please the commandant and commissar in charge of the prison, to convince them he is true to the revolutionary cause. But his style displeases them; his decadent Western influences betray him; his consulting work on a major motion picture failed to please anyone, even when he tried to help show Vietnamese in a favorable light.

One element of this story weighs on the personal story of our narrator. He is one of three men who swore a blood oath during their early teens. One of the others fights for the capitalist side, and the other leads Communist forces trying to rebuild the south. The protagonist leads a double life: his heart is that of a revolutionary Communist, but by all outward appearances, he’s a Southern capitalist soldier all the way. In the imprisonment which covers the end of the book, the commissar ultimately brainwashes him and splinters his personality in two.


So at story’s end, he is truly riven in two, and to get on with the remainder of his life he must first find a way to heal his mind and heart. Mr. Nguyen shows stunning cleverness and aplomb with this conceit. His main character loves both sides of View Nam; he tries to reconcile the split that has reached even his own person.
The love of his homeland flavors every sentence and thought here, and the pain in the face of the staggering human cost shows through in unutterable sadness. The author sings a long, loving ballad in the key of the blues for Viet Nam, and places within his protagonist all its elements: grief at the human loss, a knowing and sarcastic nudge for the human failings, and ultimately a wisp of hope. With this debut piece, Mr. Nguyen has run the table: historical sweep, thrills and skullduggery, a sympathetic, Everyman-type hero, and assured treatment of major themes. Take this up, by all means!
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