‘The Sympathizer’ Viet Thanh Nguyen Shocked With Pulitzer Win; Should You Read the Book?


The Vietnam War was a dark period in history. It spanned 20 years of America’s failed attempt at trying to contain the spread of Communist influence in that nation and the unification of Vietnam under Communist control after the withdrawal of the US forces. The war and its consequences have mostly been analysed from an American perspective. Author Viet Thanh Nguyen presents the war from the perspective of a Vietnamese spy in his Pulitzer-winning novel, “The Sympathizer.”

Nguyen was quite shocked to learn that he had won the prestigious award for his debut novel. “Thanks for all your good wishes,” Nguyen wrote on Facebook, reports Los Angeles Times (LA Times). “I double checked with real people in my publisher’s office … and they say that The Sympathizer really did win the Pulitzer Prize. Unless this is some cosmic virtual reality trick. I’m stunned.”

It is interesting that Nguyen was born in Vietnam in 1971 and came to the United States in 1975 with his family as a refugee. He grew up in San Jose, California and is now an Associate Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He is a product of two very different cultures. LA Times notes that the Pulitzer committee praised “The Sympathizer” as “a layered immigrant tale told in the wry, confessional voice of a ‘man of two minds’ — and two countries, Vietnam and the United States,” which is only fitting. We see the Vietnam War from a fresh perspective. That perspective comes from an author whose family had to flee their homeland to escape the devastation that the long war brought.

Like the author, the main character in “The Sympathizer,” an unnamed Vietnamese double-agent, is conflicted. According to Grove Press who published the novel, “The Sympathizer” tells the story of “a man of two minds, someone whose political beliefs clash with his individual loyalties.” It is during his coerced confession that the Vietnamese perspective emerges.

It is also interesting that in “The Sympathizer,” the unnamed character stumbles upon a film set. One will remember films like Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” Oliver Stone’s “Platoon,” and Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” and how they portrayed the conflicts of the American soldiers in Vietnam. All of these films largely ignored the Vietnamese perspective. This book undoes that. Hopefully, Hollywood will pick up the film rights to this historic novel soon.

Nguyen says that he is happy to have received positive feedback from readers that he didn’t consider to be his target audience. He intended it to be a “confession from one Vietnamese person to another,” as reports LA Times. The novel, despite being wrapped in the cloak of fiction, is a quasi-historical document; a memory narrative that should be read by all, not just the Vietnamese or the Americans.

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