The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

the sympathizer

This is yet another one of those extraordinarily-well-written, even Pulitzer-Prize-winning books that I did not enjoy reading at all.  The writing is clever, with wit and imagery and drama; but sadly, the main character, who narrates the story, is remarkably unlikeable.  He gleans a bit of sympathy as he begins his story about his violent exodus from Vietnam to the U.S. at the end of the war, and as he recounts stories from his youth, having been bullied because of his being of mixed race.  But, at least for me, that is where my sympathy for him ends.  As he continues to recount his prior experience in the U.S. as a student there and as he continues to track his workings as a double agent for North Vietnam during his experience in California in the 1970’s, it feels at least to me, like a story with a great deal of pain with little to be gained for it – for both the main character and the reader.

I was hoping to learn a little more about the backstory of Vietnam – and there was some of that here.  There was some sympathy for the idealism of the Communist North Vietnamese and the disillusionment of the South Vietnamese who felt used and then abandoned by the US.  The most powerful part of the story, for me, was when the protagonist is hired to be a guide to a director about a movie about the Vietnam war.  He is miserable, because he is unable to convince the director to give more than minimal, stereotypical, awful roles to the Vietnamese actors in the movie, when he was hoping to bring some real humanity to their roles.  This theme is recurrent throughout the story – that is, prejudice against Asians – and our main character is treated with even more disdain than most, because he is not even pure bred Asian.

Again, the writing in the book is absolutely impressive and I can understand the Pulitzer Prize.  But what is missing here is heart, and that is what I look for in a book as well.  Academically fancy without empathy does not carry me with you!