$26.00ISBN: 9780802123459Availability: On Our Shelves NowPublished: Grove Press - April 7th, 2015
The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, shows us the Vietnam War, about which we’ve read countless (often wonderful) books and seen countless dark movies, from an entirely different angle—or perhaps angles is more appropriate for the double-vision perspective of a double agent, a man with two faces, one Vietnamese, albeit like the country, split in two, the other one American. Our nameless narrator, who was raised in the U.S. and whose father was murdered by communists, feels loyalty to a South Vietnamese “general” for whom he works as aide-de-camp, and also to his North Vietnamese and American handlers who were high school friends in the U.S. At first our double agent juggles his loyalties with a haphazard aplomb that makes for comedy akin to that of Catch-22. But as Saigon falls and chaos reigns, the juggling becomes trickier, the consequences more deadly. Betrayal is heaped upon betrayal, and what at first seemed almost a game becomes a terrifying descent into the reality of war. We know the fate of our vagrant hero from the outset since the book is framed by his confession in a North Vietnamese prison camp. But somehow the tale’s confessional tone is more meditative than despairing as our narrator gives voice to the dreams and illusions that have brought him to this final reality. The wonder of The Sympathizer is implicit in the title: this portrayal of a man who sees and understands from more than one perspective is eye-opening—at first cynically amusing, and in the end an indictment not just of war but of the world and the mad, bad way it endlessly turns. Yet somehow the sympathy that lingers persistently in the narrator’s heart lingers in the reader’s as well in a fiction debut with the brio and world-weary wisdom of the finest thrillers—which, I’ve always maintained are also among our finest novels.