Friday, July 7, 2017

Review: The Sympathizer: A Novel

The Sympathizer
From The Sympathizer: A Novel, by Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Open quote 

The month in question was April, the cruelest month. It was the month in which a war that had run on for a very long time would lose its limbs, as is the way of wars. It was a month that meant everything to all the people in our small part of the world and nothing to most people in the rest of the world. It was a month that was both an end of a war and the beginning of . . . well, 'peace' is not the right word, is it, my dear Commandant?"

"The Sympathizer" is a novel of the aftermath of the Vietnam War from the point of view of an undercover Vietnamese agent who describes himself as "a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces." His ability to see any issue from both sides makes him an invaluable narrator for Americans to make sense of that horrible war.

Grade: A-

"The Sympathizer" is written in the form of a forced confession which the victorious North Vietnamese rulers forced defeated South Vietnamese prisoners in re-education camps to write and revise endlessly until they got it right. The author of the confession is a spy working for the North during the war and after, when he fled to America with the South Vietnamese general he nominally worked for. He continued to work undercover in America, until returning to southeast Asia as a mole in a counter-revolutionary force invading South Vietnam from Laos.

The tension in the novel comes not only from the action — spying, subversion, counterintelligence, guerrilla warfare — but from the psychological battles the narrator wages internally. He's the son of a Vietnamese woman and a French priest, not completely accepted in either Asian or Western society. He's a revolutionary who has to pretend to be allied with America in the war. In America, he has to struggle with himself to reconcile the good and the bad he experiences in America against his growing understanding of the good and bad resulting from the North Vietnamese takeover in the South.

There are no good guys and bad guys in this novel. There are only complicated people struggling with moral ambivalence. As the re-education camp commissar tells his prisoner, no, guest, "Now that we are the powerful, we don’t need the French or the Americans to fuck us over. We can fuck ourselves just fine."

"The Sympathizer" is available in Kindle format from the Richardson Public Library. :-)

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