‘The Sympathizer’ brings cultures together beautifully

February 13, 2021 — by Isaac Le

I’m not an avid reader by any stretch of the imagination. The most reading I do is trying to comprehend the passages assigned for homework in AP Lang and occasionally a couple books that I impulsively pick up after reading the back cover. 

“The Sympathizer'' by Viet Thanh Nguyen was one of these impulse-reads, but little did I know that it would become one of my favorite books. This 384-page novel was published in 2015 and has won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016 as well as numerous other awards such as the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author. The bright red and yellow cover immediately caught my eye, and, after reading the first few pages, I was hooked. 

“The Sympathizer” illustrates the life of the narrator, a captain for the South Vietnamese Army and a spy for the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War who must rapidly adapt to cultural differences between Vietnam and the United States after immigrating to America after the conflict. Along the way, the narrator experiences flashbacks to gruesome episodes from war and struggles with identity loss while trying to regain status in the United States, all while joining a commando militia to overthrow the Vietnamese communist regime. 

I loved the book, not only because of Nguyen’s beautiful writing, but also because of its hard-hitting themes and engrossing first-person narration. I may not be a reader or a history geek, but reading about the Vietnam War in vibrant, gory detail was surprisingly captivating.

Nguyen provides readers with a glimpse of the atrocities of war right off the bat, setting the first scene during the fall of Saigon in 1975. The narrator recalls being a part of “Operation Frequent Wind,” a last resort to allow a powerful Vietnamese couple to escape Vietnam for the United States. Alongside him is one of his best friends, Bon, who brings along his family, but as they are about to take off, a group of Viet Cong soldiers fire in the direction of the plane, killing Bon’s wife and his son. Bon is forced to leave them behind as he boards a second plane that lands in San Diego.

As a Vietnamese-American, I loved how it helped me further my understanding of my parents’ generation. I had little knowledge of the atrocities of the Vietnam War even though I knew my parents had come to America because of it. While I was growing up, my parents would describe to me their personal experience about moving from Vietnam to the United States, and after reading this novel, I was able to draw parallels  between the different stories.

This was mainly portrayed by the narrator, as he experienced a loss of identity as they attempt to assimilate into the two vastly different cultures. Trying to reclaim a sense of status, the narrator seeks a job at Occidental College, an attempt similar to the attempts of my parents to find a good education after leaving their war-torn country.

After reading this novel, I was intrigued by Viet Thanh Nguyen’s use of a narrator that is constantly providing commentary as the plot unfolds. This first-person point of view coupled with the never-ending description really allowed me to take a step into the life of the narrator. 

While I may have read it on an impulse, “The Sympathizer” is a book that I would reread. The writing style, the plot and the motifs all contribute to its power. If you have to read anything this February break, this book should definitely be on your list. It’s a unique, all-in-one adventure — an immigrant’s journey, a spy’s campaign and a soldier’s struggle. 


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