the next good book

The Sympathizer

By Viet Thanh Nguyen


367 pages

What’s it about? “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.”  So begins this thoughtful, cerebral look at the Vietnam War.  We see the conflict through the eyes of the narrator- a half French, half Vietnamese communist sleeper agent living in the U.S. after the war.   This s a spy novel, a story of friendship, and a look at how a young man can be drawn into a political situation, and soon be in over his head.
What did I think? I enjoyed this book.  It was slower moving than most classic spy novels but it had so much to say about the conflict in Vietnam.  No one is spared in the author’s analysis- not North Vietnam, not South Vietnam, not France, and certainly not America.  It seems like we all had a part to play in creating a war that was both brutal, costly, and a training ground for future conflicts.
Should you read it? So my first description of this book is cerebral and I will stick with that. This novel is a disturbing portrait of war, but also a disturbing portrait of what happens to individuals after a war.  What happened if you were left in Vietnam and fought for the losing side?  Equally, what happened if you were the victor?  What kind of experience do those “lucky” enough to escape as political refugees face once they arrive here in America?  All interesting and timely questions.
Quote- “I laid out the charges against him of subversion, conspiracy, and murder, but emphasized that he was innocent until proven guilty, which made him laugh.  Your American puppet masters like to say that, but it’s stupid, he said.  History, humanity, religion, this war tells us exactly the reverse.  We are guilty until proven innocent, as even the Americans have shown.  Why else do they believe everyone is really Viet Cong?  Why else do they shoot first and ask questions later?  Because to them all yellow people are guilty until proven innocent.  Americans are a confused people because they can’t admit this contradiction.  They believe in a universe of divine justice where the human race is guilty of sin, but they also believe in a secular justice where human beings are presumed innocent.  You can’t have both.  You know how Americans deal with it?  They pretend they are eternally innocent no matter how many times they lose their innocence.  The problem is that those who insist on their innocence believe anything they do is just.  At least we who believe in our own guilt know what dark things we can do.”

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