The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)

IMG_9212Whew. This novel wore me out. Literally, when I finished–after 5 hours straight on the last day–my shoulders were hunched, muscles tight, body tense. That’s how gripping and disturbing this book is. I’ve read quite a few Vietnam books but nothing like this, where the narrator’s own blurred identity parallels the complexity of this war. The offspring of a French priest and a 14-year-old Vietnamese girl, the bastard narrator is a Captain in the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam, specifically in the General’s secret police. But he is also a spy, a mole, a revolutionary for Communist North Vietnam. He was raised in Vietnam but educated in the US. He understands East and West. He sympathizes with North and South. His two best friends are Bon, a South Vietnamese assassin in the CIA’s ‘Phoenix Program,” and Man, a North Vietnam Communist handler. Classmates in school, they swear a blood oath of friendship, yet they operate on two different sides of a country divided by forces far beyond itself. Our narrator drinks bourbon with top CIA operatives and reports back to his handler who reports to Hanoi. His split identity makes him the only one who truly straddles these opposing sides. But the choices are not binary; they are blurry, they are complex, they are two different ways of looking at the world–not right and wrong, but right and right.

Part historical fiction, part spy thriller, part psychological drama, part refugee commentary, part assimilation narrative, this is a story of Vietnam not yet told by most American movies and books. It begins with our narrator confessing his crimes to a Commandant, and soon we flash back to the fall of Saigon and the narrator’s near miss at getting out. Then the story goes back and forth in time between his present imprisonment, his childhood, his post war years in California, his war years in Vietnam as a spy, and eventually back to his imprisonment. At times, it’s funny, almost light. Other times it’s gut wrenching and brutal. But the writing…wow. It’s so good. A tiny excerpt to illustrate: “For us (Vietnamese), violence began at home and continued in school, parents and teachers beating children like Persian rugs to shake the dust of complacency and stupidity out of them, and in that way make them more beautiful” (246). Page after page, I could have marked a hundred passages that I reread. Nguyen is an artist of words and a provocateur of ideas. This is a fabulous–and complex–book, a well-deserved 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well as numerous other awards.

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