Debt Free Literature: Revisiting History with Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer”


A well deserved recipient of 2016’s Pulitzer Prize, “The Sympathizer” explores the dark canals of Post World War America with such a tongue-in-cheek subversion of America’s narrow perspective during the Vietnam War that I feel post-modernism would be a lazy attribution to the USC professor’s novel. Nguyen’s, with his unnamed protagonist, lures the reader in with a first-person perspective that is dense but self-aware, avoiding the usual pitfalls of meta-fiction and unreliable narration with an honesty that forces the reader to think for oneself as to what the truth actually is, and why do we as a society choose to believe one fact over the other.

Without ruining anything, our main character is a communist double agent working as a mole within the United States backed, South Vietnamese government in 1975 during the fall of Saigon. But unlike many other novels concerning this era, the book truly starts to pick up after the protagonists escapes the bombing of Saigon and is forced to seek refuge in California while still working as an agent for his communist leaders, continuing reconnaissance on the Pro-capitalists soldiers he escaped with and whom after leaving their homeland continue to seek ways to maintain their soldier pride and help sabotage the winning communist powers back home. Predictably the book is rife with moments of self-doubt and inner-conflict, especially when the protagonist interacts with pompous, well-educated American’s who seek to resolve their conflicts with the war with often trite pandering to Asian culture and people.

The most profound topic overall for me though, which may get lost in the intense scenes of war and violence, come when the main character and his fellow soldiers have to settle for low-wage, relatively humiliating jobs that make their American acclamation feel less glorious than they expected. When the General of their former army is forced to get a job owning a liquor store in a sub-par neighborhood, he starts to feel that his pride and past have been washed away, his identity stripped by circumstance and distance. Themes like this come aplenty in slave narratives and in another pulitzer recipient’s work, Junot Diaz; his Americanized characters often rediscovering the lost history of their Dominican ancestors. A fact that gets lost in the peripherals of our fear, American’s (though professing otherwise) often struggle with appreciating the beauty and flavor that immigrants bring to our shores, somehow forgetting how this multi-cultural land became so great in the first place. Yet naturally, it is the immigrant who struggles to find home in a place so strange to them. Viet Thanh covers these topics so gracefully while still keeping the reader enthralled that I couldn’t help but recognize with each turn of the page why he received best-seller accreditation and critical embrace.

For More on Viet Thanh Nguyen and “The Sympathizer” read Joyce Carol Oates’s piece for the New Yorker, or just purchase the book here


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