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Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Review: The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer is Viet Thanh Nguyen's novel of the Vietnamese-American experience. In particular, it could only have been written by a Vietnamese-American who's grown up with the English language with eagerness: his use of language is erudite, eloquent, and nuanced, while his exposition of the Vietnamese-American experience itself can only have been written by someone whose command of the English language betters that of most native English speakers, but is still nevertheless rejected by the mainstream culture by virtue of his cultural background, skin color, and of course, his history.

The book won the Pulitzer Prize, and generally books that win such prizes are not much fun to read, being concerned with being in the vanguard of Literature and Literary achievement rather than story, character, plot, and being interesting. For most of the novel, Nguyen succeeds in avoiding such idiocy. The story revolves around a Eurasian man of descent who decides to be a double-agent, working with the communists to undermine the South Vietnamese interests. That experience, of course, is a great analogue with the Vietnamese American experience: someone who sympathizes with both the Vietnamese cultural experience and the American culture he finds himself immersed in.

Thus it is that we see great scenes, including the one where he, as a cultural expert, is involved in one of the many American movies written for (and by) Americans about the Vietnam war, but which of course, dehumanizes the Vietnamese as much as possible while still putting Americans (even American villains) on the center stage. He tries to change the movie by working from the inside, but of course fails.

Lots of similar scenes recur, and the story does cover the experience of being a refugee. Where the book flails is when Nguyen writes himself into a corner, by having the protagonist return to Vietnam. There's no reasonable setup in which this can happen and the protagonist has an exit (especially one in which he gets to write down what happened), so this section degenerates into magical realism and fantasy land.

Nevertheless, I found the novel worth reading. Recommended.

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