Title: The Sympathizer
Rating: 4 Stars
I just happened to pick this up at Elliott Bay Books. I later found out that it had just won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year.
I enjoyed it. It’s the story of a South Vietnamese soldier who is actually a spy for the Viet Cong. At the last moment he manages to escape from the South and ends up living in the United States (while still faithfully spying for the Viet Cong). Ultimately, he accepts a mission to go back to Vietnam to try to liberate, with spectacularly unsuccessful results.
There is obviously much more to the plot, but I’d just like to hit upon my impressions.
The main theme that I picked up on was duality. The Captain is himself a bastard (both himself and his countrymen refer to him that way). He has a Vietnamese mother and a French priest for a father. So, to start with, he has both Asian and European influences from birth. He’s a part of but alienated from and certainly not accepted by either of those cultures. Even as he’s obvious a misfit that outwardly does not belong, inwardly he hides his secret self, so even his internal being is riven by the split made apparent by his outward appearance.
Further, he is a South Vietnamese soldier secretly serving the North. He’s a public capitalistic with private Marxist leanings. He has two very close friends from childhood. One is a loyal South Vietnamese soldier while the other is his Viet Cong handler. Inevitably, even as he swears to protect both, he must betray one.
After he’s captured when he tries to reenter Vietnam, he enters a reeducation camp, where he undergoes indoctrination under torturous circumstances by the person who he trusts the most. This to me echoed back to 1984, where Winston was tortured to break his rebellious spirit.
By the end, he’s been so broken that the dualism in his nature has been complete in his mind. When talking about himself, he always refers to himself as us.
There are many other elements. The Captain is haunted by the ghosts of the innocent men that he as killed. America’s role in the destruction of Vietnam and the subjugation and patronization of the immigrants that it reluctantly accepts are examined.
This is a powerful expression of an Asian culture split apart by both European and its own native influences and the affect that this has upon its people.