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I first meant to read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen when it came out to rave reviews, and then again when The Readers chose it as a book discussion book. What finally got me to move it up to the top of the “to be read” list is that I’m going to hear the author next week. It’s a very powerful read, and a well written book, but it left me with confused feelings. I liked much of it, I learned a great deal about Vietnam and its wars, but the brutality is hard to take (how many times have I said that lately here? I need to read something less appalling, soon!) and very vivid. Chapter 21, in which the main character, The Captain/Sympathizer, is tortured until he recalls in vivid detail a female comrade’s torture, is probably one of the most horrifying depictions of inhumanity I’ve ever read.

That aside, the book is fascinating, and the Captain is an intriguing character. He has two best friends from his school days, one, Man, who is a high ranking communist revolutionary in Vietnam, and the other, Bon, who works with the Captain for a South Vietnamese general and the CIA. So the Captain is the Sympathizer — he sympathizes with communism, to the point of spying for the North, even as he works for the other side. He also admires many things about America and loves and respects both his friends. He’s an orphan, the bastard child of a French priest whose mother was the priest’s maid and had him when she was a young teen, and Man and Bon are family as much as friends to him. The Captain’s outsider status — neither fully American nor Vietnamese, neither fully Occidental or Oriental, neither fully a refugee (legally yes, but he knows California from attending college there) neither fully a soldier nor fully an intellectual, allows him to move within these worlds comfortably as no other character can.

The book begins on the last day before Saigon falls, as the Captain, the General, and their chosen family and associates escape and make their way to America as refugees. It ends with the Captain and Bon in Vietnam as well. In between, we watch the Captain try to adapt to isolation from Man and his comrades, to his refugee status, to his postwar roles serving the General and the CIA and Man, and to his responsibility towards Bon, who has suffered great losses. We also watch his developing realization that post-war Vietnam is not the revolutionary paradise that was promised.

Towards the end of the book, the Captain has wrestled with the meaning of his country’s long struggle against imperialism and is left with questions: “What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around us apparently do, in nothing?” Just as it’s important to face the brutal inhumanity of warfare (open or covert), it’s important to remember this novel isn’t just about war, but about its aftermath. It’s also a book about love, both philia, or “brotherly” love, and agape, or charity, the love that inspires concern for the greater good of mankind. The Sympathizer is unique in this book because he relates to — sympathizes with, and I’d say loves — everyone who has suffered, even, finally, those he made suffer. That he’s haunted by both innocents and his own loss of innocence makes him a sympathetic character.

Still, this book is not for the faint hearted, and was maybe not the best choice after Evicted, which also describes soul-sapping inhumanity.

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I recently reviewed The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain, and I just finished his earlier book, The President’s Hat. Set towards the end of Francois Mitterrand’s presidency, the book opens with Daniel Mercier treating himself to a meal at a brasserie while his wife and son are away. President Mitterrand and his party are seated beside Daniel. He’s amazed by this brush with greatness, and when the president leaves his black felt Homburg hat, Daniel does the unthinkable — he takes it.

As the novel unfolds, three other characters end up with the president’s hat: a woman in an unhappy love affair, a famous perfumer who hasn’t been able to create anything new for years and is in a deep depression, and a wealthy man who has come to disdain all that his familiar world stands for. As each of them possesses the hat for a brief time, their lives are changed. Daniel gets a promotion. Fanny finds the gumption to leave her lover. Pierre rediscovers his creativity. Bernard thinks for himself, and discovers a passion for modern art.

Does the president get his hat back? You’ll have to read the book to see. Once again Laurain transports readers to Paris, brings each scene alive with little details like the “ramekin of shallot vinegar” served alongside the seafood platter Daniel orders. Or a scene in which Pierre describes an African fetish in his analyst’s office.

This story seems a little bit like a fable or fairy tale; there’s the implication that the hat has some sort of magic or power and is bringing changes to each of the characters’ lives, but Laurain never quite says, leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. To me, that makes for better reading. There’s a discussion guide in the back; a book group might enjoy discussing the many social and cultural issues Laurain touches on as well as the charm of the novel itself.

The President’s Hat would be good vacation reading — thoughtful and well done, but not too taxing.

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