Viet Than Nguyen's "The Sympathizer" tells the story of a Vietnamese man fighting with the South Vietnamese army against the Viet Cong. The twist is that he claims to be a spy for the North Vietnamese. The other twist is that he repeatedly commits atrocities against supporters of the North to prove his loyalty to the South.

This first-person narrative takes us through the Vietnam War, the fall of Saigon, an escape to America, and a return to Vietnam on a secret mission.

Most of the book is written as a confession to someone called "The Commandant".

Despite the dark story and subject matter, Nguyen includes plenty of humor and satire.

After his escape to America, the narrator takes a job as a consultant on a Vietnam War movie - a role he accepts when he realizes how the director has dehumanized all the Vietnamese characters, stripping them of dialogue and not even giving them names. It is an obvious parody of Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now". He succeeds in changing the representation only slightly and the movie's tone remains unaltered. Angered at the death of her son, a Vietnamese brothel owner shoots the movie's hero - an ultra-macho American soldier. His last words are "The whore! The whore!", echoing Colonel Kurtz's famous dying words: "The Horror! The Horror!"

Not only does the narrator fail in improving the film's Asian representation, he internalizes some of its sins. When telling his story, he identifies those he encounters only with labels like "the crapulent Major", "The dark one" and "the darker one". He never even identifies himself by name.

The Vietnam War sparked a great deal of controversy in the United States, but the entire dialogue of all sides was told from an American perspective. This is the first time I have heard the story told from a Vietnamese perspective. Like the narrator, Nguyen is a half-Vietnamese refugee of the War (his parents emigrated to California when he was a child).

The narrator must reconcile his ideologies with his friendships, which are often in direct conflict with one another. "I am simply able to see any issue from both sides", he states on the first page.

And he does present multiple sides - not often in a positive light. You will find no heroes in "The Sympathizer". Everyone is to blame, and everyone is a hypocrite. Each faction insists they fight for the freedom of their people, yet each works in their own self-interest, from the imperialist ambitions of the American government to the greedy South Vietnamese General to the sadistic North Vietnamese interrogators. The possession and pursuit of power corrupt them all. 

Given the strength of the writing, the characters, and the story, it is not surprising that Viet Than Nguyen's debut novel won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize. The novel is a powerful indictment of war in general and of the Vietnam War in particular.