Viet Thanh Nguyen doesn’t shy away from the big issues in this Pulitzer Prize winning book about the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Rarely have American double standards, displacement, issues of identity and cultural imperialism made me laugh so much. The Sympathizer (the author’s first!) is not a novel without flaws but Nguyen’s excellent writing, original angle and biting satire make up for the shortcomings.
Our narrator, the ‘bastard’ result of a love affair between a Vietnamese teenager and a Catholic priest, is a military officer and the assistant to a high-ranking Vietnamese General. He is also a communist spy. As the book starts, Saigon is about to fall to the Viet Cong and Westerners and Vietnamese are fleeing. We’ve all seen the horrific images, people climbing the walls of the American embassy, clambering into helicopters. Nguyen describes it with chilling effect.
As part of the General’s staff, our protagonist is one of the lucky ones to be airlifted out of Saigon and on to California. With the exception of a hilarious stint in the Philippines as an ‘authenticity advisor’ to a Hollywood produced Vietnam War film (a barely disguised Apocalypse Now) and a pitiful coup attempt from the Thai jungle, this is where the main part of the novel takes place.
The fall from high-ranking military personnel to immigrant is fast and steep. The General starts to work at a pizza parlour; one of his colonels becomes a janitor. Yet they’re all expected to pursue the American Dream and adopt the notion that ‘no one is unhappy in America’. As our protagonist observes:
Refugees such as ourselves could never dare question the Disneyland ideology followed by most Americans, that theirs was the happiest place on earth.
Nguyen confronts Hollywood’s role in telling the American version of history: ‘…this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created’. He questions the contradiction in America’s judicial system’s ‘presumption of innocence’ and their religious beliefs that ‘the human race is guilty of sin’. And concluding that Americans way of getting around it is simply to ‘…pretend they are eternally innocent no matter how many times they lose their innocence.’ The Sympathizer is a funny novel that will make you think.
Yet, it’s not a perfect book. At times I missed more of a storyline and it lacks consistency of tone, oscillating from serious to satire back to serious. The last part of the book is especially dark and quite tough to read. A clear choice of tone would have made the novel better. Nevertheless, Nguyen’s sharp, funny writing compensates, his powerful imagery is delightful and his story something completely new. I would be surprised if we don’t hear of Nguyen again. Winning the Pulitzer Prize with a debut novel speaks for itself.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen is published by Corsair, 371 pages