Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer: A Novel won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. This book was already on my radar; I enjoyed two other recent winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction:
So when I saw he was coming to my town to speak, I paused work on my summer reading list, which I am frantically trying to finish, to read this award-winning novel. And what a great decision this was!!! Reading this book plus seeing him speak and experiencing the audience’s reaction to his book ending up a highlight of my literary year.
The Sympathizer is a Vietnam War novel unlike any other. The narrator, one of the most arresting in recent fiction, is a man of two minds and divided loyalties, a half-French half Vietnamese communist sleeper agent living in America after the end of the war.
At the time of his talk I was six chapters in to the book, which starts out funny and interesting, and then turns disturbing.
He told the audience that he wrote the book “to go head to head with the American version” of the Vietnam War, or the American War as they refer to it, and show all sides as “human and inhuman.”
The narrator, in addition to his primary role as a communist double agent, secures himself an assignment working on a movie set as a cultural resource. The movie is obviously “Apocalypse Now” and he tries, though ultimately he feels he fails, at making the Vietnamese extras more than “raw material for an epic about white men saving good yellow people from bad yellow people.”
I’ve cried tears over stories (from the American perspective of the Vietnam war), and these tears should be cried. But how often do I/we think of the other side? More than 3 million Vietnamese (more than 3 million civilians!!) were killed in this war. And thousands of refugees ended up in America, a perspective he gives voice to in this book. Two different households in his novel have a wall clock in the shape of Vietnam and set to Saigon time, which the narrator reflects on:
“Refugee, exile, immigrant–whatever species of displaced human we were, we did not simply live in two cultures, as celebrants of the great American melting pot imagined. Displaced people also lived in two time zones, the here and the there, the present and the past, being as we were reluctant time travelers. But while science fiction imagined time travelers as moving forward or backward in time, this timepiece demonstrated a different chronology. The open secret of the clock, naked for all to see, was that we were only going in circles.”
As for his book in its entirely, he obviously succeeded in speaking for some of the Vietnamese who were in the audience because during the Q&A at least two ladies brought a tear to my eye with the praise they had for his book, which one said, “spoke what has been in my heart for so long.”
In the weeks since the lecture, I have finished the book, and I had difficulty separating the voice I heard from the voice of the narrator. Like his talk, the book’s theme’s are serious and deep but I appreciated that it was delivered with light humor. Besides a scene about a squid which I won’t ever forget, the book is sprinkled with sentences such as this:
“I liked my scotch undiluted, like I liked my truth. Unfortunately, undiluted truth was as affordable as eighteen-year-old single malt scotch.”
The experience of seeing a Pulitzer prize winner speak about his book that I would later finish and possibly reflect on forever has been a literary highlight for me.
The book I admit left me confused, which I believe was it’s purpose. As complex issues should not have easy answers. Even his inscription he signed didn’t make sense to me until I finished the book:
“We will live!”
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