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Wednesday, February 01, 2023

Impressions Review: The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen


The Sympathizer earns a careful review, but just now these are some are of my impressions. 

▷ My experience of the (Pulitzer-prize-winning) novel about a Vietnamese refugee who left Saigon at its "fall" -- from Southern, U.S.-allied government to Northern, communist government in 1975 -- is inevitably influenced by my experience over the last 50 years. My experience began and continued as a (white, female) American born to white, Christian Bible translators in South Vietnam in 1972; my experience includes leaving Saigon as a toddler near its fall in 1975. The author was born the year between me and my older brother, and like my parents and three older siblings and I, left Vietnam in 1975. While reading (and listening to the final few chapters of) The Sympathizer, I felt both insider and outsider. The narrator of The Sympathizer is a counter-operative, biracial-bastard Vietnamese refugee to America.

▷ I read the novel over almost two years, in and out of states of being able to focus on reading books and states of not, stretched out through many two-week stints borrowing, then waiting my turn, then borrowing again from my local public library until I bought the audiobook to own and to finish what was pretty consistently clear as the best book I'd read in a few years.

▷ The five-star plot immaculately weaves together intricate and intense layers. When talking about the book with my mom the day after finishing, I was surprised to realize I could remember so many scenes and storylines vividly.

▷ Humor and horror. Gritty and (story-and-tone-relevant) philosophical. I found The Sympathizer to be, on balance, uncynical, in the best ways. From one wide angle, the story is about disillusionment, featuring a faithful friend and comrade whose loyalties are worked over like something presumably whole and valuable put through a meat grinder. One of those loyalties is to his sure sense of himself.

▷ In a January 2022 essay in the NYT about (not) banning books, Viet Nguyen wrote, "...loving books is really the point — not reading them to educate oneself or become more conscious or politically active (which can be extra benefits)." Of which I frequently need to be reminded, and sometimes convinced. I am especially persuaded in this case (and in the NYT essay) through Nguyen's association of "loving books" with expanding empathy through a novel's ability to make us care about a character (preferably a complicated one). The Sympathizer's evocation and generation of empathy happens in multiple ways throughout the book, perhaps as the narrator and the characters he describes live through both such quotidian and such traumatic, multiplied/divided lives. Writing about some books banned for their dangerous potential to expand empathy with characters some parents and activists fear (and some books that some of us have conflicting cognitive and complicated aesthetic responses to), Nguyen reminds us to: 

"Read “Fahrenheit 451” because its gripping story will keep you up late, even if you have an early morning. Read “Beloved,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Close Quarters” and “The Adventures of Tintin” because they are indelible, sometimes uncomfortable and always compelling. We should value that magnetic quality[... ;] books must be thrilling, addictive, thorny and dangerous." 

Or, from The Sympathizer:

Art could be both popular, aimed for the masses, and yet advanced, raising its own aesthetic standard as well as the taste of the masses. We discussed how this could be done in Ngo’s garden with blustery teenage self-confidence, interrupted every now and again when Ngo’s mother served us a snack.
I'm hoping to start (and finish!) the sequel, The Committed, in way less than two years, and am curious-confident about how I will experience it as insider-outsider, book-loving, disillusioned, non-cynical, fan.


Goodreads review

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