Book Review: “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Book reviewed by Bev Scott

Vietnam War The Sympathizer book review

The Sympathizer tells the first-person story of a communist spy embedded in South Vietnam during the “American War.” He serves as a loyal aide to “the General” of the South Vietnamese army. But, at the same time he shares information with his communist handlers loyal to North Vietnam. This spy evacuates with the General when the U.S. pulls out of South Vietnam and ends up in California as an immigrant. However, he continues his close connection to the General and the General’s handlers while in exile. When he returns to Vietnam in a futile attempt to infiltrate North Vietnam, he is captured and held prisoner. Held in isolation for a year, he is forced by the “faceless” Commandant to write his confession before he is freed. This confession comprises the first-person story of the book.

Prize-winning book, hard to read

I began reading this book to help me prepare for travel to Vietnam last December. The author, Viet Thanh Nguyen has won a Pulitzer Prize and several other prizes for this book. However I found it very hard to read. He switches focus from description to dialogue, from one location to another, from one character to another without punctuation or explanation. It’s a gripping, wry and historical story. Despite what many considered brilliant writing, I had to force myself to continue to read it.

I did finally finish it and valued the Vietnamese perspective it provided. Eventually I adjusted to the writing style. I agree that it skillfully draws the reader into the mysteries of Vietnam’s political intrigue. By reading, I also learned more about the impact of selfless commitment and passion to a political cause. The book raises evocative questions. What is the interplay of morality, power and a strong belief in a greater cause? The book reveals multiple views on the subject. In the end, I’m glad that I read it.