I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s much-feted, Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathizer for a book club, and it did exactly what I think a book-club read should do – it plunged me into a world I might not otherwise have stepped into and left me better off for it. The Guardian’s reviewer notes on the cover that the story “reminded me of how big books can be” and I know what they mean. This is the story of a communist sleeper agent/Vietnamese army captain at the end of the Vietnam War and it traverses the complete range of human emotion – from rage to love, bitter disappointment to surprising soft sweetness, ennui to shuddering terror. The Wall Street Journal describes it as “savagely funny”, which I thought, as I began it, sounded bizarre given the subject matter but it is oddly very funny, which makes the horrifying moments even more hideous. As with horrifying moments in real life they spring as if from nowhere and change the whole landscape of the book’s world in seconds.
Our narrator, a mixed-race ‘bastard’, the son of a Vietnamese teenage girl who loved him beyond measure and a French priest who never even acknowledged him, describes himself often as a “man of two faces…a man with two minds”. He is, he says, for better or for worse “able to see any issue from both sides”. It makes him an accomplished spy, an excellent narrator and a man destined to be alone in a world which always wants you to pick a side and will never trust you until you do (of course, even then, it’s no guarantee of love, happiness or loyalty).
It is a big book, a huge book and it encompasses everything humanity is – hopeful, cruel, brave, foolish, loving and unspeakably awful at times. It’s a fascinating look at power and powerlessness and what these things do to us, what they spawn and how those things then take on lives of their own. It is a unique story, brilliantly written, and it deserves all of its many prizes. It is a formidable debut novel – Viet Thanh Nguyen was clearly born to do this.