The Sympathizer is 348 pages of war fiction written by Viet Thanh Nguyen. To categorize it into “war fiction” might be a bit of down selling because it has a potential of being a modern day war classic.
Book #: 16
Title: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
“Vietnam War” or “Second Indochina war” or “Resistance War against America” or simply “American War” – whatever may be the nomenclature you can use to refer to this mayhem which lasted for almost 20 years – can simply be regarded as “the most celebrated war story in the world” after World War II.
When I say “celebrated”, I am being extremely conscious of the context – Wikipedia lists as many as 103 movies that were based on Vietnam war and add to it a flurry of documentaries – including the famous “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” by Eleanor Coppola.
In literature, there are as many as 213 “Best Literature about the Vietnam War” listed by Good Reads – not even including the historical research papers.
But, here comes the catch: the number of books that were written or the movies that were narrated from Vietnam’s point of view is very minimal. This is the void that the new PULITZER PRIZE winning novel of Viet Thanh Nguyen fills in and it does with absolute brilliance. An even more interesting aspect of this novel is you can take the Vietnam-American background out and fill it with any other War around world – the novel fits in with immense ease.
In the popular culture, “duality” is the most commonly used term to describe the human mind and so the universe that it can perceive. “The narrator”, protagonist of this novel, whose name we do not know, is the perfect representation of the duality – he is half raced, half loyal and half-hearted. Many beautiful novels were written in the past with torn loyalties- this stands there right at the top. He takes the pride in protecting the world he grown up and he does anything that it demands of him. He moves to a nation that is totally alien- as an undercurrent spy and coexist with the likes of community that destroyed their home.
It is probably easier to narrate a story of core war – like firing sounds, the tanks, the rocket launchers- but it is extremely difficult to keep yourself away from it and yet narrate something from the closest quarters. As you would expect, the novel starts off in the dark backdrop of Saigon with people eager to evacuate their nation which is in the midst of chaos and disorder. The characters, which are the key components of this story, gets introduced upfront, probably in the first 40-50 pages, and then demands you to sit back and witness what transpired in their lives.
War is chaos.
War is disorder
War is mayhem
War is death.
But, War was never dared to be written in the context of “comedy/humor”- it is obvious, with the people losing their lives, the nations’ collapsing and the civilization wiping out. This is where Viet Thanh Nguygen’s brilliance in writing comes into play.
After initial dark age narration, the life moves to a more settled Los Angeles with a cross-cultural satire thrown at each and everyone within the reach of The Narrator. Read it as a “Satire” or as “Comic” or “get offended”- but the reality is around you. In the closing chapters, the novel moves with immense pace and you can exactly visualize the chaotic unsettled camera moving in the cinematic parlance.
Overall, The Sympathizer is a novel that you must read right now. It opens up your world of perception.
Forty years have passed since this war ended and every anniversary is marked to celebrate the war stories- for both the nations – and also within North and South Vietnams. Viet Thanh Nguygen pays a perfect tribute to the war that it deserves. It is time to mark a closure to the war – memorials paid and stones erected- bury the hatred.