July 13, 2024

“The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen is an enthralling novel exploring Saigon’s fall and the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016, the novel follows the protagonist, a communist spy who works for a South Vietnamese general, as he navigates life in the U.S. after the war. Throughout the story, there are several valid critiques of American culture and the Vietnam War.

The novel is written in the first person, with the main character remaining nameless throughout the story. He is a complex character who is divided between his communist sympathies and loyalty to the South Vietnamese general and his best friend. The protagonist escapes to the U.S., where he continues his work as a spy. He gathers information and reports to his communist organization while also serving as the general’s right-hand man.

The protagonist’s struggle with his identity progresses throughout the story. As a communist spy, he feels ashamed of his work for the South Vietnamese government. He is also conflicted with his love and loyalty to Vietnam and his growing disillusionment with the communist regime. The novel explores these emotions and offers a powerful insight into the American exceptionalism that fueled the Vietnam War.

One of the most striking features of this book is its writing style. The protagonist speaks in a distinct voice that is both detached and personal. He is acutely aware that his roles in the war and in the U.S. make him a walking contradiction. The writing style is sometimes dense, with the author embellishing on certain points, but the rich content creates a clarifying sense of the protagonist’s world.

Another pro of the novel is the way it navigates complex but relatable relationships. The protagonist’s relationships with his comrades are filled with tension and offer a look at the political intrigue of the 1970s. The readers also explore a budding love story between the protagonist and the general’s daughter, which adds more humanity to the story.

What is most powerful about “The Sympathizer” is that it does not hesitate to critique American exceptionalism and its role in the war. The story challenges the idea that the U.S. was a positive force in Vietnam and exposes the hypocrisies of the country’s foreign policy. Nyugen’s exciting dialogue between characters and inner monologues offer these insights in more depth and enriches the story.

“The Sympathizer” is a thought-provoking novel that hits on many key aspects of identity and differences in culture. The 416-page effort is a powerful critique of American exceptionalism and exploration of identity, loyalty and betrayal. I highly recommend “The Sympathizer” to all those interested in challenging their beliefs, or the intricacies of identity.

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