The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

I was careful, then, to present myself as just another immigrant, glad to be in the land where the pursuit of happiness was guaranteed in writing, which, when one comes to think about it, is not such a great deal. Now a guarantee of happiness—that’s a great deal. But a guarantee to be allowed to pursue the jackpot of happiness? Merely an opportunity to buy a lottery ticket. Someone would surely win millions, but millions would surely pay for it.
— Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer

There is always a lot of anticipation when you read a Pulitzer Winner (except when you have read it before it wins - shout out to Colson Whitehead for winning 2017 Pulitzer for fiction with Underground Railroad!) and so it was with anticipation that I read the 2016 winner finally - The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

I want to start by saying that I could not stop thinking about The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson when I read this. In many ways, they each approach, through very unique protagonists, identity politics, divided spaces and propaganda. They also each monologue in a memorable voice, and through the long paragraphs of Nguyen, I had a hard time getting this voice out of my head. (I am someone typically very sensitive to paragraph structure, and was at first worried that I would not be able to handle the block text of this book, but it did go quickly, as dialogue was very much written in the lines.) And, despite the differences between North Korea and Vietnam, once again, each of these books captured universal truths that transport you beyond geographic coordinates.

Perhaps less a universal truth, but one close to home, was Nguyen's critique of the many contradictions in the American way. Our pursuit of happiness at the expense of others. Our mockery and misrepresentation of other people, races and cultures in the media (for this segment of the book alone, it is a must read). Our appropriation of other places and spaces, written in history, but perhaps not a history we fully know (as the history we are taught so often serves us). With humor and poignancy, Nguyen assesses these inconsistencies without hesitation and without reprieve. Thank you for the reminder.

We were the greatest anthropologists ever of the American people, which the American people never knew because our field notes were written in our own language in letters and postcards dispatched to our countries of origin, where our relatives read our reports with hilarity, confusion, and awe.
— Viet Thant Nguyen, The Sympathizer

He also draws a beautiful line between the divided selves of an individual and of a state. The protagonist, being a French Vietnamese Captain, never Vietnamese enough to be truly accepted at home, and still a outsider in America despite his extensive knowledge and mastery of the language, finds himself as a spy tossed between the many wills of Vietnam, a country itself divided by communism and capitalism after the fall of Saigon.

Our country itself was cursed, bastardized, partitioned into north and south, and if it could be said of us that we chose division and death in our uncivil war, that was also only partially true. We had not chosen to be debased by the French, or be divided by them into an unholy trinity of north, center, and south, to be turned over to the great powers of capitalism and communism for a further bisection, then given roles as the clashing armies of a Cold Ward chess match played in air-conditioned rooms by white men wearing suits and lies. No, just as my abused generation was divided before birth, so was I divided on birth, delivered into a postpartum world where hardly anyone accepted me for who I was, but only ever bullied me into choosing between my two sides. This was not simply hard to do—no, it was truly impossible, for how could I choose me against myself? Now, my friend would release me from this small world with its small-minded people, those mobs who treated a man with two minds and two faces as a freak, who wanted only one answer for any question.
— Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer

Certainly, this is a worthwhile read of a true history still unfolding in the East, and a critique of the West that is done skillfully and kindly, as we the West are as nuanced, divided and idiosyncratic as our neighbors. We've been reminded. Now, to remember and to mend. And to not misrepresent, other or tower ourselves above anywhere or anyone else in the process, which begs the question, is it possible to ever choose a side where no one loses? Or is our pursuit of happiness, freedom or independence always at the expense of someone else's, even our own country's people, even the other face of ourselves?