By Anya Shukla
Did I enjoy Viet Thanh Nguyen’s writing style? Yes… but did it also remind me of “Call Me Zebra” and bring back some incredibly unpleasant memories? A resounding yes. These tragic flashbacks may have affected my reading and appreciation of this novel.
Also, I don’t care what you say in your Goodreads commentary, Mr. Nguyen, the Philip Roth reference (not gonna describe it—if you know, you know) was very unnecessary. Why every author nowadays insists on alluding to “Portnoy’s Complaint” is beyond me.
Review: In Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, “The Sympathizer,” we follow the Captain, a mole in the Southern Vietnamese army. After the fall of Saigon, he ends up leaving the country for America, where he monitors and reports on resistance efforts led by a Southern Vietnamese general.
The Captain doesn’t stay idle during his time in America: he explores several romantic connections, has the opportunity to provide a Vietnamese perspective on a Hollywood film, and must hide his treachery from the general and one of his best friends, who fights for the Southern Vietnamese and also fled the country with him.
Nguyen’s messages can get a tad heavy-handed, but his novel excels at providing an accurate, unflinching look at the Vietnam War and its aftermath. My Rating: 4/5.
What I Loved: I think Nguyen’s framing of “The Sympathizer” is super powerful: “I did not want to write this book as a way of explaining the humanity of the Vietnamese,” he says in an interview at the end of the novel. “Toni Morrison says in ‘Beloved’ that to have to explain yourself to white people distorts you because you start from a position of assuming your inhumanity or lack of humanity in other people’s eyes. Rather than writing a book that tries to affirm humanity, which is typically the position that minority writers are put in, ['The Sympathizer'] starts from the assumption that we are human, and goes on to prove that we are also inhuman at the same time” (pg. 692). I LOVE THAT. Nguyen shows flaws in both Americans and Vietnamese, which allows me to to see the two sides from a holistic perspective. No character is perfect—least of all the Captain, a spy whose greatest loyalty lies with his two blood-oath-sworn best friends, one of whom fights for the North, the other for the South.
I also think the cynical, sarcastic tone of this book—“the General merely a figurehead who occasionally bellowed at his children like one of those dusty lions at the zoo undergoing a midlife crisis” (pg. 126)—helped me better understand the Vietnam War and its aftermath without feeling like I was being spoon-fed a history lesson. (Well, that specific quote didn’t really help me understand the war, but you get the idea.) Details about the fighting spreading to Laos and Cambodia, casual conversation about the Vietnamese fleeing the country on boats… these moments gave me a much richer picture of life post-war.
What I Didn’t Love: I know that I’m usually all for books that take their time and really build out characters and sit with plot points and paint a pretty picture. But I almost feel like—and I never thought I would say this—“The Sympathizer” did the teensiest bit too much of that?
I mostly saw this when the Captain goes to the Philippines to provide his perspective on a film about the Vietnam War. There were so many almost-subtle critiques of predominantly-white Hollywood representing minorities that I was like, “okay, this is my favorite topic ever, and even I’m a little done.” 150 pages about movies-as-propaganda-versus-authentic-storytelling feels heavy-handed, like the Captain’s actions were simply used as an opportunity for Nguyen to share his perspective instead of really driving the plot forward. Maybe I just noticed this because I already think about this stuff all the time. I don’t know.
Also, I really did not get the end. I might not be intelligent enough to get the end. I might need to read this book again.
A Quote I Would Like On Goodreads (and yes, I know I spent a paragraph bashing the Hollywood section of this book, but I really liked this quote): “Long after the war is forgotten, when its existence is a paragraph in a schoolbook students won’t even bother to read… this work of art will shine so brightly it will not just be about the war but it will be the war (pg. 328-329).
Up next: “The Time of the Hero” by Mario Vargas Llosa.