The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize. An impressive feat, even more so for debut novel.

“We don’t succeed or fail because of fortune or luck. We succeed because we understand the way the world works and what we have to do. We fail because others understand this better than we do.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 384 pages
Read from November 27, 2017 to December 4, 2017.

It is hard to define a novel of this calibre though it can be simply described as a spy-novel laden with humour, tragedy, and poignant cultural reflections of literary quality. The story is an identity crisis within an identity crisis as the protagonist feels torn between two worlds just has his home country of Vietnam is also being torn apart by its own people in an effort to define the country for their own.

In the spring of 1975 Vietnam is in chaos. Our unnamed protagonist has been given an overwhelming task from the General of the South Vietnamese army to decide who from their ranks will be allowed to have passage on the few remaining planes to America. Retreat seems the only way escape from the turbulence that has overtaken Vietnam from the communist Viet Cong. Unknown to the General or any in his ranks, our protagonist is a communist double spy. A bastard by birth by an absent French father and peasant Vietnamese mother, our protagonist, never feels like he belongs. His ability to see the side of every situation leaves him in a constant state of sympathetic limbo. He loves his country yet he was educated in America and he can finds conflict within both counties. He is communist but has also made friends with those against the movement. He can also see the brutality befalling his own country with the spread of communism despite country finally becoming unified and under no control but their own.

This perfect dichotomy is an act that the protagonist has perfected and has played all his life, an act that many other foreign-born people who come to live in America struggle with.

“…the basis of the most powerful theme in Nguyen’s fiction: a person with two faces who has to choose which to show, depending on the surroundings. “It’s universal. Most of us have that sense of duality,” says Nguyen, adding that the feeling of having “two faces” is aggravated for immigrants and refugees. “That sense of pretending to be somebody, or to be an imposter.””- Viet Thanh Nguyen, Independent, Nov 2016.

Despite the brooding tones, the story also depicts deep friendships and love and has playful undertones. One of my favourite sections of the book is when the protagonist is describing a scene from his boyhood, in which he grew up in poverty with his mother and the guilt that he felt over masturbating with the husk of a dead squid that was meant to be dinner. Despite the humour of the scene the author still manages to make the section almost poetic as he wraps up his thoughts with the following:

“Torture is obscene. Three million dead is obscene. Masturbation, even with an admittedly nonconsensual squid? Not so much. I, for one, am a person who believes that the world would be a better place if the word “murder” made us mumble as much as the word “masturbation.””

Another further example of the author’s humour, one that I personally really appreciated due to my hatred of country music, is the subtle way he commented on the genre:

“Country music was the most segregated kind of music in America, where even whites played jazz and even blacks sang in the opera. Something like country music was what lynch mobs must have enjoyed while stringing up their black victims. Country music was not necessarily lynching music, but no other music could be imagined as lynching’s accompaniment.”

The book reads like a confession and that’s because it is but the resulting torture and resolution are not what the reader expects. It is tragic but also relieving to have the protagonist finally unburden himself with his story.

The author is a rare and gifted storyteller. You don’t often see this type of depth and literary quality in a debut novel. The execution of the themes and content of this book alone are award winning but the real kicker is the author’s pervasive style that is unique to his own dichotomous persona.

While the book is not long, I do not recommend ploughing through this novel as there is much to be savoured. The story is a must-read for any historical-fiction lovers and a worthy and unique read to add to just about anyone’s TBR list.

Ru by Kim Thuy

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3/5 stars.
Paperback, 160 pages.
Read February 18, 2015.

The is the first book from the Canada Reads 2015 shortlist that I’ve managed to get through so far. Ru is a poetic, beautiful and tragic examination of a young girl’s move from a war-stricken Vietnam to Canada. Partially auto-biographical, the title of the book is symbolic and significant as in Vietnamese, the author’s native language, it means lullaby or to lull, and in French, her adoptive language and the original language that the book was published in, it means small stream or the flow and release of tears, blood or money.

Each page  of the book almost looks like a letter, in that some of them are written in a block format and the paragraphs are indented so that the content is in the middle of the page. This style adds a poetic feel to the novel and each of these sections are a string of memories that fit together to create the novel. In my opinion the style was carried out successfully and added a lot to the feel of the novel. The book does not have a straight forward timeline but you gather the information as it comes. You learn that the young girl was born into a fairly wealthy and intelligent Vietnamese family but it that meant nothing when communism started to spread. The nice home that her family had built was quickly bombarded with communist soldiers and her father made the difficult, but necessary, decision to abandon their home and flee their country for their own safety. Many families shipped their children away during this time if they could not manage to all go themselves and the young narrator reflects on how she never understood how families could separate themselves that way, even if it was for their own safety,  but it wasn’t until she had had children of her own that this made sense to her.  The narrator’s grown perspective on her memories, are what create the most intriguing and dynamic parts of the book.

Once in Canada, the narrator reflects at her families resilience to make a life for themselves, especially her mother. In Vietnam, her mother did not work, yet in Canada, without batting an eye, she picked up work in areas that she had never performed before. Her mother was especially hard on her to get her to interact with this new world, even if that meant moments of embarrassment or shame. Through her mother’s persistence, the shy narrator was able to get through some extremely trying moments as she learned the languages of her new country and eventually, adapted as well as her mother.

There is one moment in the book that really sticks out for me, in which the narrator remembers taking a compliment when she was working  in Vietnam. Someone had told her that she was pretty enough to be the bosses escort, which, she found very flattering at the time. That was until, in another memory recalls looking upon four naked Vietnamese escorts who were having money thrown at them as if they were dogs. It was a powerful moment of transition and realization for the narrator as she made a comparison between the two memories.

What struck me most about this book was the realization of my own privilege and how I will never truly comprehend what life could be like for an immigrant. It puts matters into perspective when you realize the trivial things that you consider real problems. I’ve never had to forcibly leave my home, learn another language and suffer in true poverty.  I can’t imagine how lonely it might feel when the people you are surrounded by in your new country have no real concept of what you left behind, what you’re trying to accomplish now and the many hurdles that you’ll be presented with. As someone born into a place like Canada, I will not likely ever see those hurdles or have to deal with them myself and for that I am grateful. However, there is a blissful ignorance that comes into being born into a place like Canada, in that a person’s world and perspective can be so very small if they do not choose to look outside of it or experience something different. There is a reason that many people who come from suffering or from nothing persist and succeed and while it can be attributed to ambition and motivation, I also think that their unique experiences with suffering and change create a life perspective that cannot be taught.

I believe that Ru is the story of many immigrants, the ones with happier endings anyway. The book really does fit the theme of this years Canada Reads, which is books that break barriers. These are the stories that make Canada what it is and shape the people that live here. Our nation is one of strong and resilient people, many of whom come here looking for something better than what they had. I would recommend this book to any Canadian or for anyone looking for inspiration.