Sunday, June 19, 2016

Book Review: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

This Pulitzer prize-winning novel absolutely blew me away, amazing writing mixed with a compelling story that educated my worldview and the way I think of Vietnam. The country is more than the American war brought to it, but the narrative I have received from popular media has never been focused on the people. The Sympathizer explores a unique character that provides an alternate viewpoint and points out valid criticisms of the popular art around the Vietnamese culture. Viet Thanh Nguyen is a tremendous writer well-deserving of his accolade.

The story is a spy novel at its core, which makes the book not only enlightening but also tremendously entertaining to read. The main character remains nameless but has a voice that is identifiable and familiar enough that an American reader, like myself, can understand his view clearly and sympathize with him even as he sympathizes with all the other characters. Beginning at the fall of Saigon at the end of the American-Vietnam war, the story shows the horrors of war and the destruction of a civilization. The book does a great job of not making one side the "right" side and villainizing another.

The story moves to California after a terrifying stop in Guatemala to show the immigrant experience and continue the spy thriller aspect. The protagonist is a captain in the South Vietnamese army but is secretly a mole planted by the North Vietnamese Communist army. I'm woefully ignorant of what their actual descriptors are. The main character juggles his allegiances and takes drastic steps to cover up his true leanings. He does not simply move through his acts with a cold-heartedness but experiences deep bouts of guilt while working to conceal them and move forward with his life.

Writing as confessional, the narrator hints at what is to come but from his first days in a American, he begins to understand the culture and is faced with an opportunity to change it. Recruited by an auteur movie director, the protagonist has the opportunity to display his country's suffering in a major motion picture but is beset by obstacles that are intrinsic in the way Hollywood and American cinematic storytelling work. 

I enjoyed this book immensely, one of my favorite that I have read so far this year. I will think back on this back at the end of the year and in years to come as it has changed many views that I have taken for granted. It is also still so incredibly relevant with yet another war Americans are fighting in another far off country with people that are only viewed as other. I don't think we have learned our lessons and if anything it has only gotten worse. I would recommend this book to readers who like to be challenged and to feel uncomfortable because this great work of fiction will certainly push readers to think more critically about what they have learned. 

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