Book Review – The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s brilliant character crafting made me sympathize with the communist sympathizer in The Sympathizer. This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction earned the honor for that feat alone. The author didn’t stop there, however. He presented not just a unique take on the experience of a North Vietnamese agent under deep cover as an officer in the South Vietnamese secret police. This gifted novelist also delivered an exceptional character study of a “man of two minds.”

I liked Mr. Nguyen’s atypical choice of character names; or rather, in many cases, the lack thereof. He told the majority of the story through the nameless narrator’s confession; a person whom others in the story simply referred to by his military rank: “Captain”. We also met the “General”, his wife “Madame” and—most memorably—“the crapulent Major.” These unorthodox apellations gave the tale a unique character all its own.

It’s difficult for a novelist to generate reader sympathy for an unreliable narrator. It’s nearly impossible to do so with one who is a traitor and engages in morally objectionable activities to cover it up. I won’t give away spoilers, but several of the Captain’s actions caused his guilt to overwhelm him to the point of making him hallucinate.

While the narrator may have had misgivings about his dubious conduct, he didn’t allow them to influence his behavior. The author, therefore, humanized the character through his recollections of his departed mother. While consulting on a film regarding the war, the Captain painted her name on one of the prop gravestones in a cemetery. He explained why:

At least in this cinematic life she would have the resting place fit for a mandarin’s wife, an ersatz but perhaps, fitting grave for a woman who was never more than an extra to anyone but me. (Location 2589)

Most authors insert clever uses of language into their works. Nguyen included more than most. Here are my favorites.

Besides my conscience, my liver was the most abused part of my body. (Location 1934)

What was it like to live in a time when one’s fate was not war, when one was not led by the craven and the corrupt, when one’s country was not a basket case kept alive only through the intravenous drip of American aid? (Location 411)

Before the communists won, foreigners were victimizing and terrorizing and humiliating us, now it’s our own people victimizing, terrorizing and humiliating us. I suppose that’s improvement. (Location 2554)

One only needed to ask why the idealist was not on the front line of the particular battle he had chosen. (Location 3536)

And the most notable: “We would all be in Hell if convicted of our thoughts.” (Location 3368)

I was suffering from an eye injury when I began reading The Sympathizer. Because of that, I opted to listen to Francois Chau’s audio narration of the book. While I thought it excellent, I did catch one mistake. The line in the text read, “Innocence and guilt. These are cosmic issues.” (Location 1756) During the narration, Mr. Chau said comic as the penultimate word. I point this out because the error altered the sentence’s meaning.

The author set the pace and delivered tension exceptionally well through most of the book. The most noteworthy example occurred towards the beginning when the Captain and General evacuated South Vietnam. In one of the most outstanding passages in modern literature the aircraft came under enemy fire. Between scenes like this and the various tense conversations the sympathizer had with other characters the novel held my attention.

This is why the Captain’s interaction with the Commandant and the Commissar disappointed me. At this point the book became heavily philosophical. While relevant to the story it froze the pace. This section reached its climax when the captors placed the Captain under duress and forced him to answer the question, “What is more precious than independence and freedom?” I remembered that issue coming up earlier in the book. The drawn-out interrogation caused me to lose interest in the answer.

In spite of this one shortcoming I’d still recommend reading the novel. Mr. Nguyen found creative ways to keep the story interesting. During this portion of the narrative the author wove in a surprise plot twist. In addition the Commissar expressed his concurrence with Ayn Rand’s observation that those who support communism never lived under it.

In the opening of the book, Mr. Nguyen wrote, “After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you.” (Location 173) The brilliance of The Sympathizer shows how both can influence the same author.

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