Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, “The Sympathizer” shocked audiences and critics alike. Viet Thahn Nguyen, professor of English at the University of Southern California, has won one of the biggest prizes in literature for his first novel, a novel that follows the Vietnam War and its aftermath.
At 371 pages, “The Sympathizer” features a first-person narration of the main character, known only as “The Captain.” Despite never knowing his name, the reader feels close to him through his intricate inner thoughts and attitudes towards the Vietnam War.
The basic plot (which is anything but basic) begins with a captain leaving Vietnam with his general after the fall of Saigon. He immigrates to America, helps the general in the political struggle to return to Vietnam and tries to understand what it means to be an American. What the reader learns is that the Captain is actually a communist spy who works deep undercover and while in America must commit unimaginable crimes in the name of the political cause to which he has dedicated his life.
Stylistically, this novel deserves all praise. He goes on an experimental path, slowly becoming famous, without quotation marks around the dialogue. This choice is made with delicacy in contemporary modern novels such as “Gilead”, “Blood Meridian” and “Normal People”. The change in traditional convention puts the reader closer to the Captain and forces a slower reading, giving room to appreciate the rich prose.
Prose is so rich that it could buy a social media company, destroy it, and become rich again. Nguyen delights in beautiful images and intricately crafted details that beg to be read again and again. The shape of a woman’s dress, the heat of a bare light bulb, the desolation of a bachelor’s refrigerator stayed with me long after I put the book down.
The plot moves at its own pace, and while I usually enjoy fast-paced books, Nguyen timed this novel perfectly. The characters become more and more connected with each other over time, and a nagging question pulses through the veins of the plot: Where does one’s loyalty lie? The crux of the question beats faster and faster, finally reaching a tipping point in the last act.
It’s no surprise that this book won the Pulitzer; vivid scenes cannot be ignored. The general’s proud wife runs to the helicopter, an innocent man is killed in the garage, and the final torture scene is brutal because it refuses to end. Nguyen never gives up on the harsh realities of war.
It’s hard to believe that this is Nguyen’s first novel; topics are addressed with raw truthfulness and unwavering focus. It certainly feels like the work of a seasoned novelist, and as soon as I stop reeling from its emotional impact, I plan to buy the sequel, The Committed.
Oddly enough, the previous month I had finished reading a similar work, Chang-Rae Lee’s The Native Speaker, and it was impossible to ignore how the novels spoke to each other.
Native Speaker was published in 1996, Lee’s debut novel, and won the Hemingway Award for Best First Novel. The plot follows Henry Park, a first-generation Korean immigrant, as he tries to assimilate into American society. The overlap with “The Sympathizer” comes to the fore in the fact that Henry Park works as a spy, and his main task in “The Native Speaker” involves destabilizing the political career of a man who illegally helps immigrants with a communist money-sharing system.
Spies, politics and immigration. Although Henry Park and the Captain come from different Asian backgrounds, they both work as spies for a living and try to understand America from an outsider’s perspective. I finally made the connection when I came across a list the captain had made listing his two different cultural experiences; in “Native Speaker,” Henry Park’s husband makes a similar list.
“The Native Speaker” was published in 1996, and “The Sympathizer” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016. Although they are very different novels, I would be shocked if Nguyen didn’t read Lee’s novel and take inspiration from it. Both have a lot to say about the immigrant experience in America and what it means to have strong political beliefs.
“The Sympathizer” builds on the tradition of the novels that preceded it and remains one of the most beautiful debut novels I’ve ever read. Rich prose, deft handling, worth reading and re-reading.