“Your destiny is being a bastard, while your talent as you say, is seeing from two sides. You would be better off if you only saw things from one side. The only cure for being a bastard is to take a side.”
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen presents one of the more memorable protagonists that I’ve encountered in my reading in a while. Right from the start, we know this unnamed narrator is a Communist spy in South Vietnam. He has a Vietnamese mother and a French father which sets him up as an outsider for most of his life. We also understand that as an adult he has two close friends, one of which knows about his spying (because he is a spy, too) and one doesn’t. And finally, we know from the beginning that he is presently in an isolation cell writing a confession to a Communist superior. What is he confessing? That’s where the story takes us.
I would describe the plot as a “slow boil”. We go deep into the mind, background and character of the narrator while small plot turns add up to a satisfying and explosive conclusion. But the novel’s focus remains on the duality of the narrator’s character. In spite of his role as a communist spy, he has been educated in the United States. In spite of his dislike for much of the U. S. foreign policy, he gets “westernized” through music and literature.
The most fascinating aspect of the narrator and the novel to me, though, is the fact that he has what many would call an ability to see politics, history and religion from more than one point of view. This ability is probably what alienates or isolates him the most. At the same time, it’s probably what allows him to have the few close friendships that he has.
And on a final note, the depth and complexity of this novel still allows for comedy – not just something funny stuck in for comic relief but a humor that works. Perhaps since the narrator easily sees things from multiple viewpoints, this also lets him see the humor in life:
After love, was sadness not the most common noun in our lyrical repertoire: Did we salivate for sadness, or had we only learned to enjoy what we were forced to eat? These questions required either Camus or cognac, and as Camus was not available I ordered cognac.