The Sympathizer24 Jan 2019
At the New Years party for the SF Kendo Dojo I was talking to my senpai Koji about the reading I had done over the holidays. I recommended he check out the one leisure book I read: A Tale for the Time Being. Like a good senpai, Koji had a recommendation for me. He told me to check out The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. I always trust my senpai, but I did some quick research before buying the book and found very compelling evidence that this novel was indeed worthy of reading given it won a slew of awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016.
The Sympathizer begins at the close of the Vietnam War. The protagonist is a captain in the US-backed South Vietnam army that has just been routed by the communists of North Vietnam. More importantly, he’s also a double agent and actually allied with the communists who just won the war. As the South Vietnamese flee to the US, our protagonist is tasked with keeping tabs on all the refugees and reporting back to the communists.
Some might say I seeing things, but the true optical illusion was in seeing others and oneself as undivided and whole, as if being in focus was more real than being out of focus. We thought our reflection in the mirror was who we truly were, when how we saw ourselves and how others saw us was often not the same. Likewise, we often deceived ourselves when we thought we saw ourselves most clearly. And how did I know that I was not deluding myself as I heard my friend speak? I do not.
The Sympathizer is a lot of things. It’s a story about the refugee experience of the Vietnamese in America following the fall of Saigon. Sometimes it’s oozing with James Bond vibes. Then it takes a turn and explores the power of Hollywood to both distort and exploit. Other times it reads like a soft-core erotic novel where the protagonist expounds on the power of cleavage. These more lighthearted passages juxtaposed with passages on the various incredibly cruel torture methods leveraged by both sides in the conflict exposes readers to a gamut of emotions.
I pitied the French for their naïveté in believing they had to visit a country in order to exploit it. Hollywood was much more efficient, imagining the countries it wanted to exploit.
Throughout this all, we see a protagonist torn by a world that seeks to neatly label everyone in extremes: us versus them, Democracy versus Communism, American versus not American, Vietnamese versus not-quite-Vietnamese. In this world there is no comfortable place for someone like the protagonist, a sympathizer, who is able to see things from all sides.
I might have been just half an Asian, but in American it was all or nothing when it came to race. You were either white or you weren’t.
Above all, the Sympathizer is also one more thing: a book you should definitely consider reading! Also, if you’re in the Bay Area and interested in hearing Viet Nguyen speak, he’ll be visiting SF State on February 19th!