The critical acclaim for The Sympathizer is well earned and deserved. From the onset, the reader knows that this is a book that is an important contribution to the collection of world literature. To be sure, it is not the easiest of books to read, but a story that will resonate well into the future.
In a trend for books today, the novel is told by an unnamed narrator who is writing his confess for the commandant. It begins as Saigon is about to fall and so many are trying to escape as quickly as they can. The Narrator lives with the General, on whom he is to spy, and is given the task to compile a limited list of names of those who could be evacuated with the General. The escape is not without peril as the Narrator's best friend's, Bon, wife and son are killed on the tarmac. The Narrator's handler, Man, is likewise a communist, while Bon is a patriot.
Escaping to Los Angeles, Bon and the Narrator share an apartment and Bon works for the General who opens a liquor store. The Narrator goes to work for the Department of Oriental [sic] Studies at the university where he meets Ms. Mori, with whom he begins a relationship. From this point the narrative turns into a cat and mouse espionage adventure. The General believes that there is a mole in his organization as he begins to reorganize an army to return to Viet Nam to fight the communists. The Narrator informs the General that, indeed, there is a spy and it is the crapulant major, who is handled.
The Narrator returns to Viet Nam as a consultant on a movie that is being produced and the plot thickens as to explosions, torture, the revelation of who exactly Man is, and the final statement in the book, "We will live!"
The writing is exquisite and sophisticated. The sentences are crafted so well and the characters developed to a degree that is not often seen in fiction today. Sympathy, is the underlying theme of the novel, hence the title. The Narrator shows sympathy at nearly every turn in his life. He is able to understand people and their beliefs, even though they might not align with his. He is a communist, to be sure, but also can sympathize with the General and his desire to reclaim his native country.
It was an interesting talk that Nguyen gave for the Ten Literary Evenings. One point that really came through was his life as a Vietnamese man in America - you never quite feel at home in your life. When you are with your family in a typical Vietnamese home, you feel as an outsider to the American way. When you are on the outside in the midst of American culture, you are not at home with your heritage. A good point for all of us to remember as we deal with refugees in our country.