It almost seems as if all of my university classes are in cahoots to tie into each other. I study the Civil Rights Movement in one class and read African-American literature in another. I am entrenched in the Vietnam War once a week and get pulled in with one of the textbooks for my fiction class. The Sympathizer was chosen by my professor for its many awards: Pulitzer Prize, Andrew Carnegie Medal, Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, 100 Notable Books of 2015 from The New York Times Book Review. It’s got a lot of awards. With such an esteemed background, was this debut novel worthy of such accolades?
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen takes place in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War and American withdrawal. The nameless protagonist is a half-Vietnamese, half-French member of the Army of Republic of Vietnam who is secretly also working with the Viet Cong. He escapes from the war-torn country as the North Vietnamese Army takes over Saigon in 1975 and goes to American with several other members of ARVN. What they find is not quite the country of the free and the brave, as America is trying to heal and forget the war and is in the midst of massive changes to its societal structure.
The journey that the protagonist undergoes is one of several storylines. He adapts and assimilates to American society, becoming an assistant to a professor of Asian Studies. The connections he makes in society leads toward an opportunity to help with a film about the Vietnam War. His ongoing relationship with a former General leads toward conflict between the old ways of surviving and their new place in the lower caste of American society. So much happens in the span of this single novel that it’s hard to cover it all, but I can say that this is an original perspective in the history of Vietnam narratives.
The writing of this novel is exquisite even as it tackles difficult or absurd subjects. Re-education and indoctrination are described in lacerating pain in the same book as a scene talking about masturbation with a squid. Yes, this is an award winner. There are nuances of Invisible Man and 1984 and much of the tone of the novel fits with typical Vietnam narratives. However, it adds a new voice and brings much to the genre that wasn’t present before. Is it almost like reading three different books in one? Yes, but, for the most part, it works. Does it hammer some of its points a little too much? Occasionally, but the language is so beautiful that it almost doesn’t matter.
There’s a lot that can be read from this single novel. Discussions on gender roles and sexuality could find something in that most of the male characters are either unnamed or go by titles and that females are named and given more authority than one would suspect. Discourse on the war and the duality of the Southern Vietnamese people would find plenty to talk about in regards to the protagonist’s bastard and sleeper agent status. Talks about the hypocrisy of religion would enjoy the fact that the protagonist’s French father was a priest and that his mother was fourteen when their relationship started. Film freaks would love to draw comparisons between the fictional film of “The Hamlet” to Apocalypse Now. There’s a little something for everyone in this book, and it does a fairly decent job of juggling it all.
I would recommend The Sympathizer to people who are interested in the Vietnamese perspective of the war and in an analysis of the postwar society, to aspiring authors who want to see what receives accolades and awards, and to people who are looking for something literary and spectacular without being too condescending in its writing and audience. While it may contain a few too many plotlines and be a bit jumbled at times, this novel brings something new to the game and is good for an entertaining read. Pick up a copy and sympathize today.