Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Review: The Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen's 2015 novel The Sympathizer won The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016. It is a remarkable mix of historical fiction and thriller, with elements of "fish out of water" comedy and romantic comedy thrown in. It's the story of a Vietnamese double-agent, his voyage out of Saigon to America, and his dangerous spy work embedded in a sleeper cell. The novel explores the consequences of his choices as he tries to maintain his identity, in more ways than one.

The book examines many aspects of the immigrant experience as the protagonist settles into his enforced American life. He's been to America before. "If an American closed his eyes to hear me speak, he would think I was one of his kind," he says. But as the novel progresses, he's tormented by his outsider identity, both as a spy and as a refugee living in a culture that he admires and despises.

There are parts of the novel that smartly satirizes America's own tendency for scrubbing away the cultural influences for entertainment purposes. "You didn't even get the screams right," our hero complains to an American movie director. There are also moments of sheer terror, especially in the later chapters, when you fear not only for our hero's life, but your own sanity as Mr. Nguyen vividly renders pain and suffering with frightening precision ("Interrogation is about the mind first, the body second," a character explains).

I came to his novel by way of his New York Times op-ed piece titled "Why We Struggle to Say I Love You". In that op-ed piece, he analyzes the difficulty most Asian-American children have in saying "I Love You" to their parents. His piece greatly touched me, and I sought out more of his writing. I was not disappointed.

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