The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

screen-shot-2016-09-25-at-7-37-56-pmThe Vietnam War was of my generation. I served in the Air Force in Texas 1968-1970. I recalled vividly the anti-war protesters of that time. There were many great movies about this war that I have seen which includes Apocalypse Now, Platoon and many others. I have met and spoken with refugees from Vietnam including those who identified themselves as “Boat People.” I have a rudimentary understanding of the French colonialism of Vietnam, the rise of communism, the war between the North and South, America’s entry into it and the ultimate withdrawal and the Fall of Saigon. I can’t say that this well-written book clarified this complicated political history to any great degree. In fact, it may have blurred the margins of some of the issues and muted my simplistic view of them. However, what this novel did provide for me was an insight into the personal viewpoints and struggles that many of the native players have gone through as they overtly and covertly battled each other for the heart and soul of this country.

This is a story of revolution and counterrevolution. It occurred in an era of brainwashing, torture, hidden moles, intelligence and counterintelligence. I realized that one’s belief and loyalty to a particular political cause may very well depend on where you were born. But on the other hand, it becomes clear in this case that once the communist revolution succeeded in the North and then in the South, the so-called collective society itself became oppressive, corrupt and tyrannical. This is certainly one of the messages of this book.

This book was well researched and well written. In fact, it is the author’s style and way with words that entertains as well as educates the reader. While most of the sentences of this book were of average length, there was one somewhat lengthy one which will give you a taste of this book and the skill and style of the author:

We could not forget the caramel flavor of iced coffee with coarse sugar; the bowls of noodle soup eaten while squatting on the sidewalk; the strumming of a friend’s guitar while we swayed on hammocks under coconut trees; the football matches played barefoot and shirtless in alleys, squares, parks, and meadows; the pearl chokers of morning mist draped around the mountains; the labial moistness of oysters shucked on a gritty beach; the whisper of a dewy lover saying the most seductive words in our language, anh oi; the rattle of rice being threshed; the workingmen who slept in their cyclos on the streets, kept warm only by the memories of their families; the refugees who slept on every sidewalk of every city; the slow burning of patient mosquito coils; the sweetness and firmness of a mango plucked fresh from its tree; the girls who refused to talk to us and who we only pined for more; the men who had died or disappeared; the streets and homes blown away by bombshells; the streams where we swam naked and laughing; the secret grove where we spied on the nymphs who bathed and splashed with the innocence of the birds; the shadows cast by candlelight on the walls of wattled huts; the atonal tinkle of cowbells on mud roads and country paths; the barking of a hungry dog in an abandoned village; the appetizing reek of the fresh durian one wept to eat; and the sight and sound of orphans howling by the dead bodies of their mothers and fathers; the stickiness of one’s shirt by afternoon, the stickiness of one’s lover by the end of lovemaking, the stickiness of our situations; the frantic squealing of pigs running for their lives as villagers gave chase; the hills afire with sunset; the crowned head of dawn rising from the sheets of the sea; the hot grasp of our mother’s hand; and while the list could go on and on and on, the point was simply this: the most important thing we could never forget was that we could never forget.

Although I don’t think that this book would be at the top of my list, it did win a Pulitzer Prize. So if this subject is of interest to you, The Sympathizer should be worth the ride.

 

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