Aug 29, 2015

The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Devastating and incredible. Though these words don't really do this novel justice, they're the closest I can get to describe the power of Nguyen's "The Sympathizer." Set around and just after the fall of Saigon, our nameless narrator is confessing. To whom, we don't yet know. Why, is another mystery. Our narrator is a double agent, a communist working within the Republican Army's secret police. Doubling his doubled nature, he is also half white, son of a young Vietnamese village girl and a French priest. His two best friends, Man and Bon, are diametrically opposed as well: Man is a high level communist agent and Bon does the secret police's dirty work. Pulled between all these opposites, our narrator leads us along the path to his own personal fall.

The novel is immensely powerful. We get the horror of atrocities committed by Americans, Viet Cong, and those caught in the middle; we get the discombobulation of living in America as a non-white refugee, forced to perform menial work and accept government handouts to survive after having had real careers in Vietnam; and because the story is told in the first person, we get the idealistic belief of a communist who sees it as the only way out of persistent poverty and powerlessness, as well as the lure of capitalist America.

It's a damning look at human nature, not just the Vietnam conflict. America's roll as teacher of atrocities is equaled by the willingness of the Vietnamese to commit them against their own people in turn. Our narrator's crime, to which he eventually confesses, is that he did nothing in the face of evil. How many are guilty of such a crime? Too many.

Though the last 70 pages got a bit bogged down, this is an incredibly impressive novel by a masterful storyteller. Funny in parts and devastating in others, Nguyen lays bare the worst aspects of ourselves and sometimes the best. I look forward to what he writes in the future.

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