Early on in Nguyen’s debut novel, The Sympathizer, our conflicted protagonist recalls himself as a teenager, masturbating with the aid of a dead squid. It is a visceral scene, the kind read through parted fingers, equally disgusting and fascinating. Relayed in the rational but detached style that characterizes the book, Nguyen’s narrator confesses fully and frankly, without shame.
Immediately following the masturbation scene, is an equally robust description of an elaborate dinner featuring that very same squid. Too precious to throw away, our narrator describes the process of marking, cooking, and (with no small pleasure) eating the squid he has gleefully violated only hours earlier. It sounded so delicious that I was compelled to set down the book and Google ingredients until I had found something approximating the recipe.
This juxtaposition of pleasure and disgust, running the gamut of uncomfortable emotional reactions, perfectly characterizes The Sympathizer’s brilliance. Our narrator, a South Vietnamese Communist mole at the tail end of the Vietnam War, frames his story as a confession, but while description of his crimes is thorough and unflinching, his confessors and the nature of his arrest remain in shadow until near the book’s end.
Nguyen is a Vietnamese American who has previously published academic and historical books and articles in the field of Asian-American Studies. His narrator’s ambiguous cynicism exposes equally the particular atrocities of both nations. While much has been written and filmed in America about Vietnam, The Sympathizer reveals how very little of this literature has been from the view of those most intimately involved in the conflict, namely the Vietnamese people. Nguyen’s novel is both a step to correct that imbalance, and a skewering satire of American popular culture.
If you’d like to read more ideologically-driven, intricately plotted novels about East Asian Communism, try The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. Set in contemporary North Korea, Johnson’s protagonist tries creative, audacious ways to evade government interference. On the other hand, if you’d like to read more books featuring protagonists who attempt to return home after a sojourn in America, I highly recommend Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. Though Americanah and The Sympathizer are very different novels plot-wise, both examine the themes of racism and culture shock in America through the eyes of immigrants.