The Sympathizer ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
The Sympathizer by first-time novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen is this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. It’s about the Vietnam War, the Vietnam era and, in particular, one man’s role in the whole mess. (What ever happened to the rule about novels having to be about American life to be considered for a Pulitzer Prize?) It’s 400 (almost) densely packed pages (no quotation marks; the dialogue is blended in here and there wherever it occurs). The Vietnam War and the Vietnam era would not be on my list of favorite subjects for fiction, but, for me, the saving grace of The Sympathizer is that it’s so good and such accessible, interesting reading.
The story of The Sympathizer is being told in the first-person by a narrator whose name we never know. We learn toward the end of the book that he is writing this whole thing as a confession while in solitary confinement as part of his “re-education” (another word for torture) at the hands of the communists. He is the bastard son of an illiterate Vietnamese woman and a French priest. Since he has spent part of his youth in America, he is “Americanized” and knows English well, but, in spite of that, he never feels like an American but always a bastard, the unwanted foreigner. After the fall of Vietnam and his narrow escape, along with many others, to America, he and many of his fellow countrymen want only to return to help liberate their country. What is more important that freedom and independence? The answer is nothing. (Nothing becomes a very important word to him at the end of the book.) Wait a minute, though! There’s something funny about this man. He claims to be on the side of the anticommunists, but the truth is he’s a secret communist agent. Where is he going with that? Is it safe to say he is conflicted? In the interview at the end of the novel, the author of the book, Viet Thanh Nguyen, says he deliberately wants to rattle the reader. I wouldn’t exactly say I was rattled, but only a little mystified.
For me the best parts of the book are the harrowing escape (by the narrator and his friends) from Saigon on the day it falls and the long section in the middle of the book where the narrator travels to the Philippines with an American movie crew to work as consultant on a movie that is being shot about the Vietnam War. (Ostensibly the movie is Apocalypse Now.) He wants to ensure that Vietnamese people are treated fairly in the movie but falls far short of that goal. There are a few lighter moments in The Sympathizer, as when the narrator is “dating” a much older Japanese woman who doesn’t care for him as much as he cares for her and, later, his infatuation with a beautiful Vietnamese girl named Lana (Lan); but there are also some horrible things, such as a couple of murders, a gang rape, people being dismembered by land mines, torture and other terrible things humans do to other humans in the name of some noble cause. This is a book, after all, about war. Did I need to read a book about Vietnam? Probably not, but now that I’ve read it through to the end, I’m glad to be done with it. If anybody ever asks me, I may be the only person in the room to have read it.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp