[Here is a piece of advice if you want to be better read and don’t know where to start: besides the “canonized” classics (Western AND non-Western), try reading Pulitzer Prize winning fiction or Nobel Prize authors. When I’m looking for new, contemporary fiction and I’m not sure what to read, I’ve recently been going to the most recent Pulitzer Prize winning novel that I have not read.]
[Don’t worry, no spoilers here! ]
Viet Thanh Nguyen is the 2016 Pulitzer Prize winning novelist of The Sympathizer. Though born in Vietnam, at four years old his family fled to the United States after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Nguyen now is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Southern California.
“‘No one is righteous, no, not one…'”
This verse, Romans 3:11, might be an appropriate summary for The Sympathizer and an especially poignant reminder for the American idealist.
Over three-quarters of the book takes place as a confession from the main character (unnamed throughout), a Vietnamese political prisoner, to his communist commandant. He is a mole, a communist spy that has spent years as a captain for the southern republic of Vietnam. After the fall of Saigon, he escapes as a refugee to America. There he continues to act as an informant and operative for the communist party before he returns to Vietnam with a small reconnaissance party only to be captured by his communist comrades and forced to write and re-write a satisfactory confession over the course of a year. The book concludes with a self-revealing climax about the character, the reality of war, and human nature.
In his novel, Nguyen writes the main character as a living embodiment of contrasts and duality. He is a bi-racial bastard, the secret love child of his Vietnamese mother and his father, a French priest. He is in southern Vietnam as a mole, a sympathizer for the communist north. He is a strange amalgamation of East and West: he studied in America, speaks perfect English, understands the culture, and almost feels at home there as a refugee. He is a mole with a conscience, constantly struggling with his role in the revolution. He truly sympathizes with both sides of everything: both sides of the revolution in Vietnam and in some ways both sides of the world (East and West). His struggle is not a negation of identity (in contrast to a faceless character towards the end of the book) but rather a doubling of it. Thus, in perfect story form, Nguyen himself explores the duality of the Vietnamese American, perhaps best captured in the book’s opening lines.
“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess…. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear.”
Additionally, Nguyen explores the abuse of power from all angles: the Americans, the southern Vietnamese, and the northern Vietnamese. No one is innocent, as the character realizes.
Finally, uniquely, Nguyen isn’t really directing his novel towards white Americans. In a Q & A with Paul Tran, Nguyen implies his desire to “directly [confront] the history of the American war in Vietnam from the Vietnamese American point of view.” However, it’s not a novel to describe the Vietnamese to whites.
“I did not want to write this book as a way of explaining the humanity of Vietnamese. Toni Morrison says in Beloved that to have to explain yourself to white people distorts you because you start form 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 into, the book starts from the assumption that we are human, and then goes on to prove that we’re also inhuman at the same time.”
So there you have it. I recommend the book. It’s thought-provoking and challenges our assumptions. And it is written from a unique and powerful voice. Enjoy!