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The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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Last month, when I visited Chicago, I found myself with an hour or so to kill up in Old Town. I had enjoyed dinner with my friend Candy Minx at a place called Mash, across the street from the Old Town School of Folk Music (dinner was great – I had bbq brisket with Mac ‘n’ Cheese, corn muffins and salad). Candy had to start work across at Old Town right after dinner. She had given me a ticket to see Jerry Douglas perform a solo dobro show that evening, but the show didn’t start for over an hour. I went for a walk around Old Town and found myself in a really good bookstore. There was an author in there speaking, and while he was going on and on about whatever book he had on the shelves, I looked for something to read that captured my imagination. I went in with little more than that simple idea in mind.

I came across The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen on what I think may have been a “staff picks” shelf. Here’s what I read on the back:

“The narrator, a Vietnamese army captain is a man of divided loyalties, a half-French, half Vietnamese communist sleeper agent in America after the end of the Vietnam War. A powerful story of love and friendship, and a gripping espionage novel, The Sympathizer examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film and the wars wew fight today.”

The book was all of those things. It offered up a unique perspective and was a fascinating read. I suppose it’s partly about living as an outsider in America, partly about the immigrant and refugee experience. It also examines identity and ideology, friendship and politics, and at the same time is a strange personal adventure story – oh, and let’s not forget it’s also a spy story.

The Sympathizer is at times frustrating, sad and horrific. Still, it has an underlying satirical wit, which appeared sometimes in unlikely circumstances. It’s a brilliant and complex effort – not a feel-good story – but a great read all around.



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