“The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize and the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author in 2016. He’s clearly trending up from an already lofty perch: in 2017 he’s published an acclaimed collection of short stories (“The Refugees”) and is now officially recommended by a gentleman.
“The Sympathizer” takes the form of a confession by a communist agent embedded in the National Police of South Vietnam. Fortunately for readers, this communist agent has a talent for characterization, narrative building and sentence spinning. Rarely does a paragraph go by, let alone a page, without a sentence that is worthy of applause. While frequent breaks to stand and clap in the direction of the book definitely slow down the reading process, it does afford one the chance to savor the writing, and as the Pulitzer committee recognized (as they sometimes do), this is writing worthy of savoring. It’s also a narrative worthy of that 10-more-minutes style bargaining that inevitably leads to sleep deprivation and calluses caused by excessive clapping.
It’s a satirical thriller, and it wraps laughs around sad, and sometimes, especially as the novel draws to a close, horrifying scenes. This novel is not recommended for someone hoping to avoid the atrocities of war.
While stories of spies and global intrigue are sorely missed in our world right now, “The Sympathizer” fills a void. It also offers American readers a taste of the Vietnam War from a Vietnamese perspective. As is mentioned in the novel, it’s not often that the losers of a war get the privilege of writing its history, and this novel offers some course-correction in that regard.
One of fiction’s crucial qualities, maybe its most crucial quality, is its mandate to get inside someone else’s head. It’s always a good idea to, at least occasionally, get inside the head of a character from another culture. I’m soliciting ideas on how to make reading more widely appealing (Pages made of fried starches? Primary and secondary school curriculums full of exciting books? Books that turn into cakes after you’ve read them?), but I’m sure lots of smart people are working hard to make our world more widely read and empathetic.