The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

A debut novel winning the Pulitzer and many other prestigious awards (see * below) just calls my name because it’s true,  I’m a sucker for the reading awards.  Besides,  two (2!) of my reading groups selected it so …   I had to read it.

The end result?   This is probably the most beautifully written book I’ve read in years although it might be one of the most violent books I’ve read also.  But it’s kind of on the order of Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy in that the lush writing takes the edge off the horror.    And unlike McCarthy’s novel,  Nguyen doesn’t shy away from humor – it too serves to mitigate ugliness of what’s happening.

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The Sympathizer
by Viet Thanh Nguyen
2015 / 348 pages
rating:    9.5 / A –   literary crime 
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The story concerns the tragedy of the US war in Vietnam -especially the aftermath.   I avoided that subject for for many years as it was too personally painful.  I finally tried Frances FitzGerald’s prize-winning nonfiction book,  Fire in the Lake (1972) and then went on to The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (1990).    But I didn’t get around to those until 2010 or so – 35-40 years after the war.  They’re both excellent books.

Back to The Sympathizer – the narrative is structured in the form of a letter to a Commandant written as a confession,  or a pseudo-confession, by a prisoner.  The nameless 1st person protagonist, the writer of the confession who was a spy for the North,  was the head assistant to General in the South Vietnamese Army – but the US is leaving.   He is the “sympathizer” of the title.  His father was a French Catholic priest while his mother was the priest’s maid.   The prisoner/sympathizer had spend a good part of his youth at university in the US but his mother and his best friends were of the North.  This duality is expanded and forms much of the thematic thrust of the book.

As we are transported back through the story we find the prisoner and his General,  along with the General’s  family,  managed to leave Vietnam at the very end of the fall of Saigon. They  came to the US and proceeded to … well … that’s what he tells us.  We also know from  outset that our letter/confession-writer  was/is a  “sympathizer,” –    “a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces,”    but also “a man of two minds” – not wholly convinced of either side.

Nguyen writes beautifully – really, really beautifully!  He’s a stylist of first order with unusual metaphors and just ways of putting things.  His characters are brilliantly constructed and we get to know them in many ways.  The plot is tension filled – the reader  kind of knows what’s going to happen but … how?  why? when? –   (The book also received an Edgar Award for best debut novel –  that’s the crime genre.)

The inspiration came from “Apocalypse Now”  and Nguyen did an enormous amount of research on the making of that movie – (see the Acknowledgements). Also, there is a fictional book which has a huge part in the plot and it’s based on the very real ideas of William Westmoreland as witnessed by his documentary, “Hearts and Minds.”    There is also obviously some good research done on the details of the fall of Saigon which,  for what it’s worth,  I remember watching on the TV news.

Overall this is an incredible book – well deserving of the awards its received.

* The Awards:

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Winner of the 2016 Edgar Award for Best First Novel
Winner of the 2016 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction
Winner of the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
Winner of the 2015-2016 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature (Adult Fiction)
Winner of the 2016 California Book Award for First Fiction
Finalist for the 2016 PEN/Faulkner Award
Finalist for the 2016 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction
Finalist for the 2016 Medici Book Club Prize
Finalist for the 2015 Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Mystery/Thriller)
Finalist for the 2016 ABA Indies Choice/E.B. White Read-Aloud Award (Book of the Year, Adult Fiction)
Named a Best Book of the Year on more than twenty lists, including the New York Times Book ReviewWall Street Journal, and Washington Post
** from Amazon