Monday, August 15, 2016

"The Sympathizer", a novel about the detritus of the war in Vietnam

This book by Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer prize for fiction this year.  It also received other awards and was on many top 10 lists in the print media.  It seemed as if it needed to be read, but it was not immediately easy for this reader.  Twice it was started and after a few chapters in it was put down due to other interests.  Recently it was once again picked up again and with some effort it was completed.

What was difficult about the book was that it described situations that ranged from humorous to dreadful.  The main character is a half Vietnamese/half Caucasian man who came of age during the war.  Born and raised in Vietnam, he went to college in the Los Angeles area but went back and forth to Vietnam.  His loyalties were mixed both in Vietnam and the United States, as his ethnic background and his geographic locations led to a constant cognitive dissonance in his life.

The observations of this character about life in the U.S. as a perceived Asian are insightful and at times entertaining.  His situation related to the war is more complicated, gripping at times and at other times harrowing.

The unique nature of this book makes it a novel that stands out and is compelling in the way that it is written.  It is not surprising that the book was considered as a major book of the year.  Much of the story is loosely based on actual events.  What could be disconcerting to this reader was the less than cohesive way the narrative developed.  At times there is humor that seems forced, or not so much humor as evidence of despair.  The serious nature of the book is encompassed by this passage near its end, "Our commandant was a man who didn't get the joke, and people who do not get the joke are dangerous people indeed.  They are the ones who say nothing with great piousness, who ask everyone else to die for nothing, who revere nothing.  Such a man could not tolerate someone who laughed at nothing."

 

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