No Innocents in War: A Review of Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer

Photo credit: Doug Niven/PBS

If you love historical fiction like me, but you like it with a good amount of humour to offset the heaviness of all the politics, The Sympathizer is the book for you. The Sympathizer is written in the form of a confession letter. The author of the letter, referred to only as Captain, is a Viet-Cong spy/mole in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).

A little background: Vietnam was divided into two separate countries, North Vietnam and South Vietnam. North Vietnam was led by a communist government, and South Vietnam was led by an anti-communist government. With the support of the United States, the South Vietnamese government declared The Republic of Vietnam, thereby forcibly reuniting the two countries. The North Vietnamese government or rather political organization known as the Viet-Cong became embroiled in a war with the South as a result.

You don’t need to have a lot of knowledge on the Vietnam war to read the book, and the background I provided will probably suffice. This book is masterfully written. The nonlinear timeline, simply put, is the unnamed protagonist saying, (Record scratch; freeze frame),” Yup, that’s me you’re probably wondering how I got here.” Despite knowing the narrator is being held somewhere by the time he writes the confession; I was held in suspense the entire time I was reading the book to find out exactly how he got there. Revolutions are messy business; Viet Thanh Nguyen doesn’t appear to take any sides in this war. When the narrator asks, “What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs?” The narrator makes a case for himself, as a sympathizer, that these two sides are not all that different from each other, when you stand in the middle. This book was well deserving of the Pulitzer Prize. If I could capture it this book in a universal human experience, I would tell you to think of what it feels like to cry until you laugh, the line between joy and pain is so blurred, we often think of them as polar opposites but that is the irony of life, that the more things change the more they stay the same. I rated the book a 4.3/5, on Goodreads it will be rounded off to the nearest whole number.