Pulitzer Prize, Fiction, 2016
A profound, startling, and beautifully crafted debut novel, The Sympathizer is the story of a man of two minds, someone whose political beliefs clash with his individual loyalties.
It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong.
The Sympathizer is the story of this captain: a man brought up by an absent French father and a poor Vietnamese mother, a man who went to university in America, but returned to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause. A gripping spy novel, an astute exploration of extreme politics, and a moving love story, The Sympathizer explores a life between two worlds and examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.
©2015 Viet Thanh Nguyen. Recorded by arrangement with Grove Atlantic, Inc. (P)2015 Audible, Inc.
This is a great book. I mean, really great.
Our narrator is a divided self. He is born a half European, half Vietnamese in the North of Vietnam, and then, despite being positioned to welcome Western influence in his country, aligns himself with the communists before the Vietnam War. Then, because of his excellence as a student and his not looking like what people would expect, he’s cast as a sleeper agent and rises to be aide-de-camp to a key South Vietnamese general. Most of the novel takes place in the United States where he finds himself secretly supporting the communist government and chronicling the exiles’ dreams of returning to Vietnam and creating a new counter-revolution.
The structure of the novel reflects that fundamental schizophrenia. Half of it is brooding and historical. We revisit American atrocities in Southeast Asia, we relive a history that some of us once new well but that current generations may never have known, and we get a first-hand glimpse at the horrifying re-education camps. It is, as I gather at least some critics have seen it, a history of the Vietnam War and its aftermath – in English – told from the other side.
The other part is deeply personal, though, and that’s the half that seems to me to take this from a very good novel into the realm of greatness. Our narrator cannot help but map the two halves of his identity – a Vietnamese loyalist willing to murder on behalf of his theoretical cause and a Westernized refugee/immigrant addled by sex and aware of the ambition of his ego.
Somehow, through all of that, the novel has moments of inspired hilarity. At one point, imprisoned in a camp, he contemplates the meal digesting in his stomach and labels the shit forming in his intestine another “brick” to help build the revolution. At the end [apologies for a kind of SPOILER] he finds a manic joy in deconstructive reading of “Nothing is more important than life and liberty,” turning the empty slogan into a powerful, almost-pun that undermines revolutionary thought and sloganeering. At another, echoing Portnoy’s Complaint, he recounts how he would sometimes masturbate into squid, a delicacy his Western father rarely doled out to his impoverished Vietnamese mother. It’s a tour-de-force scene, conflating an “f-the-father” Freudianism with Marxist revolution and good old fashioned teenage horniness.
In that light, a good part – though not all – of this novel works for me as what I call (Port)Nguyen’s Complaint. The two novels share a structure: Roth’s narrative is cast as an American Jew talking to his psychoanalyst while Nguyen’s is of a double-agent writing his confession for his communist allies in a reeducation camp. Both also deal with unreliable first-person narrators, characters who have reason to cast themselves as abject examples of what they once aspired to and yet who have also accomplished substantial things.
I think there’s a lot to learn in casting the two novels in conversation (maybe I have an academic project) as well. Roth, writing as an American in America, has the luxury of presenting his story as, implicitly, the story of a new sort of American. Nguyen, writing as a Vietnamese unable to ignore the intellectual gravity of the Western-American experience, can’t stand on such stable ground. Portnoy may eventually come to a kind of self-recognition at the end (though whether it’s a break though is open to interpretation), but our narrator here goes face-to-face with the failings of the Vietnamese communist project and the pangs of that country’s early rebuilding. Roth is granted what the communist’s might have called the privilege of Western decadence, while Nguyen has to reach through layers of irony just to reach the position of irony where Roth begins.
This one is already on my list of books to re-read in the next few years. Like its protagonist, it’s split along many axes: Vietnamese and American, coherent and careening, brooding and comic. With all that, it surely deserves a second reading too.
The Sympathizer ranks as the best work of fiction I've read in a long time. The author is honest, interesting, humorous, and has keen insight into the American and his involvement with the Asian especially after the war in Vietnam. I especially enjoyed the chapters in which the unnamed hero, a fluent in English Vietnamese refugee, signs on as an advisor on a Hollywood Film a la Apocalypse Now. It gives the author a means of showing us how our attitudes are shaped by media.
I rarely read non-fiction but this book grabbed me and wouldn't let go. The writing is beautiful, thoughtful, and funny. Mr. Nguyen's style reminds me of Graham Greene, especially with Mr. Chau's performance. The author uses many historical facts to build this fascinating story. He does not name many of his LA characters but I recognize some of them (e.g., the ex-general with the Clark Gable mustache has to be Nguyen Cao Ky). I also love the period setting, early 70s to early 80s. If you know Vietnam, you'll love this book. If you don't, you'll learn a lot as the author is obviously familiar with the country and its history. This is the most entertaining book I read this year.
The captain, of course. He's acerbic, intelligent, and funny. He's also so capable that he sometimes comes across as a Vietnamese James Bond.
I have not heard Mr. Chau before but I love his performance. He pronounces words in Vietnamese, French, and English all expertly and with ease. He also has perfect cadence, which brings the author's writing to life.
The title says it all, no need for embellishment.
If you think the writing in 50 Shades of Grey is great, this book is not for you. The book's humor will be lost on you and its vocabulary will be over your head.
One master-passion in the br east, like Aaron's serpent, swallows all the rest. A. Pope
This novel personalized Vietnam and the Vietnamese for me in a way no movie or book has. I'd even go so far as to say I believe this novel would be perfect for students studying the Vietnam War and the era surrounding it, particularly from the point of view of the Vietnamese. With the proviso that, as do most realistic novels, the narration tends to veer at times toward the salacious.
It is written as the first person account given to a "commandant" by a South Vietnamese captain who was born a "bastard" to a Vietnamese mother who was seduced and impregnated by a Catholic priest, who fails to recognize him as a son. Though the narrator/captain is a sympathizer to the communist overthrow of Vietnam (and reports certain activities in so. Calif. in the years after the overthrow), I hope no one has the impression that this powerful novel is sympathetic to communism or communists.
Instead, this novel, which is full of levity and hilarity, is an endurable, substantial and intellectually stimulating novel that actualizes indictments of not only the USA's treatment of the Vietnamese during and after the war (here in the States) but, more harshly, of communism and the post-revolutionary communist leaders of Vietnam (asking, both implicitly and explicitly, what does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs?, and why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others?).
As "Animal Farm" will always stick with me on the evils of communism, particularly in Russia, THE SYMPATHIZER has significantly impressed upon me the effects on a country and its countrymen of a communist regime (and how many of the former revolutionaries saw the error after it was too late) as well as the evils subject to corrupting men/women in power, no matter their politics. I am again reminded of that quote from Picasso, "Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth."
The narrator was spot-on in his reading of this novel.
This was an interesting, at times moving, at times thought-provoking tale. I was interested that it was a Vietnamese view of the war and its aftermath. There are only a couple of non-Vietnamese characters, who do not come off well. So much of the well-known (at least by me) literature of the Vietnam war is told from American perspectives--so I admired having another picture. As I understand it, this book was written in English and the language was often beautiful. I read a criticism of the novel that the metaphors were overwrought at times. Maybe, but for me the highly metaphorical language gave me the feel of reading another language: it was English, but English rendered in an idiosyncratic manner, like a foreign idiom. It was estranging at times which I thought suited the subject. I gave the performance by Francois Chau 5 stars, because he was unusually non-intrusive. His reading vanished inside the words and the story. That, in my book, is a good thing.
I have to confess that I had to skip some difficult parts toward the end of the book. I will be interested to see what the author writes next. A theme throughout the book is that the protagonist is "of two minds". He is, as a result, a sympathizer which humanizes him and makes him both strong and vulnerable. The author worked with philosophical ideas--which I find inherently interesting--a lot, but maybe not always completely successfully. So I admired that even as sometimes I felt lost along the way.
Faced with mindless duty, when an audio book player slips into a rear pocket and mini buds pop into ears, old is made new again.
“The Sympathizer” defines the idea of a world citizen. It is the first novel of Viet Thanh Nguyen. In the beginning, “The Sympathizer” seems like another version of a war Americans would like to forget. Chugging through the story one is nearly derailed but the denouement spectacularly realigns a listener’s direction and destination.
As is widely acknowledged, America’s abandonment of Vietnam in 1973 left thousands of South Vietnamese soldiers in peril. In 1975, the last American marine leaves the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon. Nguyen’s novel begins with hard decisions made by South Vietnamese commanders to identify native supporters, and their families, who would or would not be saved by military transport to America. Nguyen’s main fictional character is chosen to be one of the lucky evacuees. The irony of that selection is that he is a communist sympathizer, a spy.
While many escaped death from America’s abandonment of South Vietnam, the communist friend who stayed is severely wounded from an American napalm attack. His experience in recovery from the severe wounds, and life under communist rule appears to have taught him an indelible lesson. That indelible lesson is what the sympathizer has forgotten to remember.
The communist friend asks the sympathizer what is most important about being either a citizen of America or of Vietnam. After many days of sleep deprivation, the sympathizer says it is freedom and independence. Wrong says the friend. After more sleepless days and nights, the sympathizer says death. This is progress says his friend but wrong again. Finally, after more wakeful nights, the sympathizer answers the question correctly. The answer is a seven letter word–nothing. The answer cuts through nationalist political ideology. The inference is that all people are subject to the sins of being human. People are citizens of the world; not of any one nation. Death may be an escape from the chains of nationalism but believing in nothing offers opportunity to live.
Best piece of fiction I have read since the Man Who Loved Dogs - In many ways this book does for the Vietnamese revolution what Leonardo Paduro did with Stalinism in Cuba...
The performance was a bit lacking though - some of the mispronunciation of the basic Vietnamese (Ao Dai) was grating...
As a Vietnam veteran I have yet to find a book about the war that I have been able to relate to. Fiction or nonfiction. I was an infantry grunt, a member of the First Air Calvary and we were the first Americans Nixon sent into Cambodia in 1971. Nothing I've read about Vietman in the sixties and seventies has come any where close to my experience. The Sympathizer really takes place after the end of the American involvement and is interesting as it is told from the standpoint of a half Vietnamese, half French Captain, working for the South but secretly a communist spy. I found the story somewhat plodding. A lot of what I would characterize as intellectual meandering and not much else going on for a good portion of the story, especially near the end. The author is an excellent writer though and has a knack for black humor. The narration was not great, but adequate.
A Vietnamese American perspective on a vector changing period in Vietnamese and American history that is extraordinarily well written, told and resonating. The paradigm of embedded duality and contradiction is a powerful lens for this writer. Highly recommended
Wow I got a real girl glimpse of the fall out of Vietnam War for Vietnamese people. The author tells the story with great wit and emotion. I loved the story
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