"The Sympathizer" by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)
"Everything my guidebook said was true and also meaningless. Yes, the East was vast, teeming, and infinitely complex, but wasn't the West also? Pointing out that the East was an inexhaustible source of riches and wonder only implied that it was peculiarly the case, and not so for the West. The Westerner, of course, took his riches and wonder for granted, just as I had never noticed the enchantment of the East or its mystery. If anything, it was the West that was often mysterious, frustrating, and really interesting, a world utterly different from anything I had known before I began my education."
Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Professor of English, American Studies, and Ethnicity* at the University of Southern California. The Sympathizer is his first novel. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016.
In The Sympathizer, the son of a Vietnamese woman and a French priest becomes a spy for the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. He later moves to the United States after the U.S. military withdrawal from Indochina, and later still takes part in a doomed expedition to retake Vietnam from the very communist masters he is serving. As a man caught between races, cultures, and political affiliations, his motives and actions fall under everyone's scrutiny, and he spends much of the book alienated from all but two of his closest friends.
To say that author Viet Thanh Nguyen has a way with words is putting it mildly. He not so much writes as performs acts of literary subterfuge. It's been a while since I encountered a writer with both a talent for the language and a mastery of the subject matter, but in The Sympathizer I found both qualities in excess. It's an almost perfect novel, about which I have only one small complaint.
And that complaint is? Only that he indulges in "the aspiring immigrant writer" trope, which can be seen in any number of recent books, from Shawna Yang Ryan's Green Island to Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner. The whole "protagonist as struggling writer" thing has been done to death by some of the most famous names in fiction, and adding "immigrant" to that description doesn't improve it much. Thankfully the author doesn't spend a lot of time on this somewhat masturbatory, always self-referential plot device, so as said above I voice here a small complaint, not a large one.
This aside, The Sympathizer has a great (and strangely uplifting) ending. I don't want to give too much away, but let's say it avoids many of the major pitfalls this type of novel tends to encounter, while at the same time bringing all of the elements of the plot together nicely. I have a hard time imagining that any of the other books nominated for the Pulitzer in 2016 ended in such a resounding fashion, imparting a message that should resonate with any person, regardless of race, culture, or ideology.
"Farewell Waltz" by Milan Kundera (1973)
"A Matter of Honour" and "Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less" by Jeffrey Archer (1976/1986)
"Papillon" by Henri Charriere (1970)
"Green Island" by Shawna Yang Ryan (2016)
*Not sure if it's "American Studies and Ethnicity," or if "Ethnicity" is an area of academic specialization now. The Wikipedia article presents his job title without commas.