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The Sympathiser

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The recollection of a South Vietnamese person who was a mole for North Vietnam during and after the war.

399 pages, Kindle Edition

First published April 2, 2015

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About the author

Viet Thanh Nguyen is the author of the novel The Sympathizer (Grove Press, 2015). He also authored Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America (Oxford University Press, 2002) and co-edited Transpacific Studies: Framing an Emerging Field (University of Hawaii Press, 2014). An associate professor at the University of Southern California, he teaches in the departments of English and American Studies and Ethnicity.

He has been a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies (2011-2012), the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard (2008-2009) and the Fine Arts Work Center (2004-2005). He has also received residencies, fellowships, and grants from the Luce Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, the Asian Cultural Council, the James Irvine Foundation, the Huntington Library, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Creative Capital and the Warhol Foundation.

His short fiction has been published in Manoa, Best New American Voices 2007, A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross-Cultural Collision and Connection, Narrative Magazine, TriQuarterly, the Chicago Tribune, and Gulf Coast, where his story won the 2007 Fiction Prize.

His writing has been translated into Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Spanish, and he has given invited lectures in China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Germany. He is finishing an academic book titled War, Memory, Identity.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 10,607 reviews
Profile Image for Duy Nguyen.
1 review39 followers
March 16, 2015
Being an English major from UCBerkeley and an Artistic Director of Asian American Theater Company for 3 years, I've run across a lot of Asian American works. Though my heart is always with these stories, they've often lacked style. Viet Nguyen has style. He's really funny, in a smart unpredictable way. And I think he's is going to get a lot of awards and all that when word really gets out. Deservedly so because it touches all the big points of Vietnamese American history while never getting bogged down in being a historical lesson. I can see backlash by Vietnamese conservatives who want us all to just be the kind of Vietnamese who do our homework and forever hold a grudge against Communism. Definitely, not a read for the faint-hearted. I'd say this is the best book on the Vietnamese American experience period. And coming from a Vietnamese American who was actually a boat refugee, this is the most authentic (yea, it's spy genre, but we're talking how Vietnamese people actually think and survive) telling of the Vietnam to America experience. I'm buying this as a gift for all the cool people in my family.
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,081 reviews68.1k followers
June 3, 2020
The Darkness of Democracy

When Donald Trump blasts "Make America Great Again", it may not be obvious that 'again' has a very specific historical reference: the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, the day the United States lost its first war. This event opens The Sympathizer. The Donald cannot mention Vietnam; it is still too painful and embarrassing a topic in American politics even after more than 40 years. There was no attack on a US ship in the Tonkin Gulf, there were no dominoes waiting to fall, there were no oppressed freedom-loving people to defend. These were fabrications.

The Vietnam War in the US has the same emotional significance as the First World War to Germany during the Weimar Republic. It is a reminder of not just defeat, and government deceit but of purported betrayal by one's fellow countrymen - hippies, liberals, draft dodgers, inconstant politicians. The fact that Trump arranged to have himself exempted from being drafted into the Vietnam War - through equivalent fabrication - makes him even more emotionally dedicated to ensuring his own past disappears into that period when America believed itself not just courageous, and honest but competent, and above all exceptional among nations. His recent attack on former Vietnamese prisoner of war John McCain as a 'loser' was not so much personal as a metaphysical rejection of Trump's as well as the country's own history.

This novel is acutely prescient not only about the archetypal American/Trumpian neurosis, which it satirises so mercilessly, but also about the political effects of that neurosis. The conflict in Vietnam has become an historical metaphor for what is happening in American politics as I write this review. The route from Weimar to National Socialism in the Germany of the 1930's, as many have already noted, has much the same scenery as the rise of Trump. The similarity is not congenial to many Americans. Nguyen's staging of the problem of America in Vietnam is therefore brilliant. That he doesn't provide a happy dénouement is simply prudence not lack of imagination. Many others who have studied the problem reach a similar impasse.

For example, in 1943, two weeks before her death, the young philosopher Simone Weil wrote a short essay 'On the Abolition of All Political Parties'. In it she distinguishes the meaning and practice of political parties in continental Europe and the Anglo-Saxon world of America and Britain. Both types involve the passionate espousal of a point of view on the shape and content of the general good. Weil likes neither type - the British because, although it dissipates passions, the result is compromise which everyone can accept but no one really wants. The continental, because it enflames passions to the point where Jacobin ferocity puts "one party in power and all the others in jail". Frustration with the former naturally leads to the latter.

The slide from reason to controllable passion to Gnostic dictatorship in which each party accuses the other, not only of error but of the vile civil evil of treason is, Weil implies, inevitable. This she foresees is the real threat of and to democracy: the corruption of the souls and consciences of those who participate in party politics. It is difficult not to perceive in the recently held Republican National Convention precisely this slide from rational perception of one's personal interests to the ultimate demonisation of the other side as perverts, traitors and liars: "Hillary for Prison", "Hillary the Traitor of Benghazi".

The Sympathizer is in large part about Weil's inevitable slide into the abyss of party politics. The locus is not Cleveland (although much of the book takes place in America) and the protagonist is not American (but significantly European/Asian). Nevertheless the not-so-hidden force of the narrative is American culture and American military and political power in the character of the mysterious Claude. One clue to the metaphorical intent of the book is that Claude (and his intellectual avatar Hedd) is apparently the only proper name in the book. The other characters are either roles - the Captain, the General, the Auteur, the Parisian aunt, the crapulent major - or veiled descriptors in languages other than English - Man, Bon, Sofia Mori. What the named character of Claude promotes is simply the creation and the continuing passionate hatred and conflict between the two historical factions of Vietnamese before during and after the war. He plots and meddles and tortures and encourages strife endlessly, not for any obvious ideology or advantage but just because he can.

Claude is America and what America does - not just to others but to itself. Not until halfway through the book, despite several hints, does it become apparent that it is actually about representative democracy not Vietnam: "Not to own the means of production can lead to premature death, but not to own the means of representation is also a kind of death." muses the spy-protagonist who is having a rather different kind of political awakening than he anticipated during his life in the West. The real question is how anyone can be politically represented. Neither liberal democracy nor the dictatorship of the proletariat makes a satisfactory solution to the problem. All politics fail from time to time. Perhaps not inevitably as Weil feared, but certainly when it comes under control by the Claudes of the world.

Donald Trump is the potentially fatal flaw in American representative democracy. Clearly Nguyen knew nothing of Trump's prospective rise to political fame as he wrote. But he didn't need to. Trump is a type, the dark side of America that lurks constantly in wait to mug the entire country, and as much of the rest of the world that is within reach. It is this dark side which is so obvious to non-Americans, especially non-European non-Americans. And it is this side which Nguyen describes with such horrible accuracy. A timely reminder therefore of the real danger we face.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,006 reviews36k followers
November 3, 2019
Another Update (2nd update)--- I've been reading through my Kindle book again the last few days of this book --looking over my notes -taking new ones.--Our local book club is meeting to talk about "The Sympathizer". 25 of members from around the Bay Area are attending....with 25 others on the waitlist.
For people who live in our area -- this is an important topic. Americans and Vietnamese/Americans live closely together here.
The Vietnamese culture thrives in our city. Right after I read this book -the first time -over a year ago --before Viet won the Pulitzer Prize --I chatted with him....a few times actually. He lived here in San Jose for a period of his life--and still has relatives in San Jose.

What stands out for me -this second time -- (especially the parts in Los Angles when things looked so awful to me in those grimy apartments -yet I couldn't help but laugh at some of the descriptions) -- was that Viet didn't write this book to point any fingers. He never 'blames' anyone - but we become more aware of the conflicts living in the minds of the Vietnamese 'just-being-here' after the war in Vietnam. And nobody gave us that experience more clearly than he has in any book I had read before.
Looking forward to what 24 other people have to say!

Update: exciting news.... This book just won the Pulitzer Prize for this year!!!!!!!!!!!!! VERY EXCITING!!!! VERY Cool!!!!

The year is 1975 at the start. As communist tanks are about to roll into Saigon,
a General of the Southern Vietnamese army is saying good-bye to community workers and friends from the Villa they live.
The General and his and compatriots leave to start a new life in Los Angeles, Calif.

The Captain 'secretly' reports to a communist-allied -higher up - Viet Cong. about their group. Both secrecy and hierarchy were key to revolution ---which was why there was always another committee higher up!

The author's story gives voice -depth- anguish -and understanding of what its like to be Vietnamese in America after the war.
The narrator, *The grizzled captain*, brings us into his head so that in time, we, too, feel as if we have one foot in American and one foot in Vietnam.

....."Ah, the Amerasian, forever caught between worlds and never knowing where he belongs! Imagine if you did not suffer from the confusion you must constantly experience, feeling the constant tugof-war inside you and over you, between Orient and Occident. 'East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet', as Kipling so accurately diagnosed".

There are enchanting growth experiences for our 'grizzled-captain' with woman! I especially loved how his eyes opened when he was falling in love with Lana: A modern thinking Vietnamese woman.

"She believed in gun control, birth control, liberation for homosexuals and civil rights for all; she believed in Ghandi, Martin Luthur King Jr., and Thich Nhat Hanh; she believed in nonviolence, and world peace, and yoga....."
"Most of all this woman expressed her opinions: whereas most Vietnamese woman kept their opinions to themselves until they were married, whereon they never kept their opinions to themselves, she was not hesitant to say what she thought."

This is a remarkable first novel. Its 'RICH & LIVELY'. Packed filled with stories -thrilling -thriller-funny & fierce! Its a novel which commands our compassion and respect for Vietnamese-Americans.

I've 'shifted' in 'soul' since reading this book. It gives me an entire new view of the ending of the Vietnam War. Bringing Vietnam and America together has been taking shape in front of my eyes for years -- but I hadn't examined the courage, suffering, heroism, and collaboration until now.
My emotional heart is permanently tattooed with love for the Vietnamese-Americans.

I share a city with a large population of Vietnamese-Americans.

I live in San Jose, California. We have more Vietnamese residents than any other city outside of Vietnam. Over 10% of our population is comprised with Vietnamese-American residents. Our city has Vietnamese language radio shows, TV shows, literature, community strip malls. (Vietnam Town). The San Jose City Council designated Vietnam Town as "Little Saigon". Most Vietnamese prefer the name Vietnam Town.
We've wonderful services run by the Vietnamese: nail salons, acupuncture, clothing, furniture, jewelry, accounting, travel, medical, and wonderful restaurants,(Pho soup), etc.

This is a powerful book! Hard to believe it has not been written until now! Wonderful engaging storytelling by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Thank you Grove Atlantic and Netgalley! Powerful Story!
Profile Image for Adina ( On hiatus until next week) .
827 reviews3,232 followers
December 20, 2016
I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.

With these words Viet Thanh Nguyen decides to start the novel and these two sentences were enough to get me hooked. They managed to intrigue me, to want to know more and set the basis for what will prove to be one of the main theme, the interior conflict of the narrator.

The Symphatizer is a book about the Vietnam War and its aftermath. The book is about loyalty, identity and the difficulty to adjust to a new culture and reality. It written from the point of view of the Vietnamese and does not always put the Americans in a positive light.

This novel is a perfect companion to the Quiet American by Graham Green (a masterpiece ), the only other book about the Vietnam war that I read. Actually, the Quiet American is mentioned a couple of times in the Symphatizer. One theme that I found in both books is about the “innocent” and idealized intentions with which the Americans entered the Vietnam War and their failure to admit ant wrongdoing. “They believe in a universe of divine justice where the human race is guilty of sin, but they also believe in a secular justice where human beings are presumed innocent. You can’t have both. You know how Americans deal with it? They pretend they are eternally innocent no matter how many times they lose their innocence. The problem is that those who insist on their innocence believe anything they do is just. At least we who believe in our own guilt know what dark things we can do.” A similar idea I selected for my review of the Quiet American: "Innocence is a kind of insanity” “Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”

The novel kept me on the edge of the seat for the first 100 pages or so when the fall of Saigon is described and thorough the escape to USA of the main characters. When the setting moves to Los Angeles the pace slows down and my interest begins to gradually fall culminating with the making of the movie in Thailand. Those chapters were excruciatingly slow and the smart writing barely managed to make the experience bearable. My interest picked up after that and the last 20% of the book were as good as the beginning. I do not want to say too much about that except that it was the most disturbing part of the novel.

The book is cleverly written, I loved the author’s way with words. I did not expect to find humor among these pages, even less one similar to Vonnegut’s ( a realization I had while reading another review). I noticed a particularity of the writing style that I want to share with you. The author uses a lot of sexual metaphors when describing war scenes. Here are two examples: “stubby grenades resembling short, metallic dildos” and ”a parachute flare sputtering into spermating existence” . I wonder what the meaning behind them is. Is it because war, as sex is about power, control, performance and status? Is it because the two acts dehumanize us to some extent?

In the end I also want to let you all know that I will never look at a squid the same way ever again. The ones that read the novel know why.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,736 reviews14.1k followers
February 12, 2017
Pulitzer Prize winner and I don't always agree, and such is the case here. A very worthy book, a book with so many truisms, such as this one "booted hard by the irony of how revolution fought for independence and freedom could make those things worth less than nothing." The tone is ironic, often satirical but it gets to be too much, wearing on me as I was reading. Almost became a chore to shift through some of this to get to the parts that meant something to me.

I little remember the Vietnam War, was very young but do remember the scenes on TV and the protests all over the United States. So in this way the book did succeed by showing me many of the things I didn't know. There are brilliant phrases, insights but in between were things I just wasn't interested in, that in a way felt like it was taking away from the story. Though in retrospect I can see where it all ties together, what it means, but while reading it just felt frustrating. There is one event I found shocking, interesting, comes near the end of the book but again I felt this was overplayed, went on too long.

So a very mixed read for me, intellectually I can see why it won, but emotionally I wasn't sold. The absurdities of war and we keep going round and round, never learning a thing, or so it seems.
Buddy read with Angela and Esil, which definitely made this easier to bear, would probably never had finished if it hadn't been for them.
Profile Image for Angela M .
1,286 reviews2,205 followers
February 10, 2017
This is without a doubt an important story to tell. " ....thousands of refugees wailed as if attending a funeral, the burial of their nation, dead too soon, as so many were, at a tender twenty- one years of age." The writing is as good as I found in The Refugees but I wasn't immediately drawn in and had a difficult time trying to understand what was happening during the evacuation, but I'm guessing that it reflects the reality of what it must have been like. Our narrator, the Captain , a double agent, introduces the reader to his dual allegiance when he says " I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. I flatter myself that this is a talent..." I was reminded of the mixed feelings that people had about this war. I was very moved by some of the scenes. The old woman and others angry and grieving throwing their shoes . Also heartbreaking was how the Captain's friend Bon loses his wife and child. In addition to the chaos of the evacuation scene the gut wrenching torture scenes towards the end stands out in my mind as well.

The essay and an interview at the end of the book were also enlightening and so very relevant for the issues at hand today and gave me a better understanding of the novel. In the essay , the author says : "The tendency to separate war stories from immigrant stories means that most Americans don't understand how many of the immigrants and refugees in the United States have fled from wars - many of which this country has had a hand in." But he doesn't put the full blame there . In the interview, he says : " The Vietnamese are at least partially responsible for what they did to themselves. I didn't want to put the blame squarely on the Americans or the French, although that blame is there. I wanted this to be ver specifically a moment of Vietnamese-on-Vietnamese confrontation and responsibility because, again, this is in part how we claim our subjectivity: we aren't just victims but victimizers as well. This is a part of our history that we all find very hard to confront." These comments give the novel some perspective and I wish I had read them first.

The wonderful writing I found in The Refugees prompted me to read this book. If that wasn't reason enough, this was a buddy read with two of my very good Goodreads friends, Diane and Esil. However, I have very mixed feelings about the book. There were too few moments when I felt an emotional connection to the Captain and at times it was a struggle to continue reading. I wish I could articulate it in a better way, but there you have it . 3 stars and 3.5 stars after reading the essay and interview, but these were not the novel, so it remains 3 stars. It won the Pulitzer Prize and there are so many others who have rated it 5 stars, but it just didn't get to me as much as The Refugees which I rated 5 stars.

Thanks , Diane and Esil! Let's do this again sometime.
Profile Image for Roxane.
Author 118 books157k followers
March 28, 2017
So clever and witty but also gripping.
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,033 reviews48.5k followers
April 1, 2015
Forty years ago this month, after a long, deadly release of flatulence from American politicians, the United States evacuated its personnel from Saigon in an operation appropriately code-named Frequent Wind. Whether you were alive then or not, the images of those panicked Vietnamese crushing the U.S. Embassy are tattooed on our collective consciousness.

In the opening ­pages of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s extraordinary first novel, “The Sympathizer,” that terror feels so real that you’ll mistake your beating heart for helicopter blades thumping the air. Nguyen brings us right inside the barbed-wire-encircled home of a South Vietnamese general just waking from his faith in American resilience. Thrashing all around him, officers and cronies are bargaining for survival: Who will get out? Who will. . . .

To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:
Profile Image for Melki.
5,793 reviews2,340 followers
February 15, 2017
My mother was native, my father was foreign, and strangers and acquaintances had enjoyed reminding me of this ever since my childhood, spitting on me and calling me bastard, although sometimes, for variety, they called me bastard before they spit on me.

I didn't realize how much I've gotten used to not needing to pay attention to the books I read. Reading this one was as much a chore as it was a joy. Words, sentences, entire paragraphs that required, no . . . demanded I pay heed. Here was inexplicably lovely prose about ugly subject matter: prostitution, war, and war's aftermath.

Now am I daring to accuse American strategic planners of deliberately eradicating peasant villages in order to smoke out the girls who would have little choice but to sexually service the same boys who bombed, shelled, strafed, torched, pillaged, or merely forcibly evacuated said villages? I am merely noting that the creation of native prostitutes to service foreign privates is an inevitable outcome of a war of occupation, one of those nasty little side effects of defending freedom that all the wives, sisters, girlfriends, mothers, pastors, and politicians in Smallville, USA, pretend to ignore behind waxed and buffed walls of teeth as they welcome their soldiers home, ready to treat any unmentionable afflictions with the penicillin of American goodness.

It rarely takes me over two weeks to finish a book, but this one had to be poured over, and savored.

What's crazy is living when there's no reason to live, he said. What am I living for? A life in our apartment? That's not a home. It's a jail cell without bars. All of us - we're all in jail cells without bars. We're not men anymore. Not after the Americans fucked us twice and made our wives and kids watch. First the Americans said we'll save your yellow skins. Just do what we say. Fight our way, take our money, give us your women, then you'll be free. Things didn't work out that way, did they? Then after fucking us, they rescued us. They just didn't tell us they'd cut off our balls and cut out our tongues along the way. But you know what? If we were real men, we wouldn't have let them do that.

Highly recommended - a tough, but worthwhile read.

The war's over, Ms. Mori said. Don't they know that? I wanted to say something profound as I stood up to say goodnight. I wanted to impress Ms. Mori with the intellect she could never have again. Wars never die, I said. They just go to sleep.
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,509 followers
March 15, 2017
If you ever struggle with your feelings and understanding about America’s role in the Vietnam War, this book could give you a useful framework to both widespread blaming and forms of forgiveness to both sides. There really was no right side to be on, and the Vietnamese people became a pawns in a larger struggle:
Our country itself was cursed, bastardized, partitioned into north and south, and if it could be said of us that we chose division and death in our uncivil war, that was also only partially true. We had not chosen to be debased by the French, to be divided by them into an unholy trinity of north, center, and south, and to be turned over to the great powers of capitalism and communism for a further bisection, then given roles as the clashing armies of a Cold War chess match played in air-conditioned rooms by white men wearing suits and lies.

With this story we get a rare, authentic Vietnamese perspective here that delves masterfully into the large questions of identity in the context of nationalism, race, culture, and morality. Written by a Vietnamese immigrant, this Pulitzer Prize winning book is incredibly ambitious and often challenging to read. It’s hard to identify with the slippery duality of the narrator, who served as a communist spy within the South Vietnamese republic and continues to do so while in America. His intellectual and sardonic tone creates an ongoing barrier in the reader’s emotional engagement with his fate. Yet, this approach was very effective to lead me to begin to see everything about this hot spot for the superpower’s Cold War in many shades of gray rather than an unrealistic black and white. In an interview published at the end of the hardback, Nguyen usefully explains some of his goal with the book:

I did not want to write this book as a way of explaining the humanity of Vietnamese. Toni Morrison says in Beloved that to have to explain yourself to white people distorts you because you start from a position of assuming your inhumanity or lack of humanity in other people’s eyes. Rather than writing a book that tries to affirm humanity, which is typically the position that minority writers are put into, the book starts from the assumption that we are human, and then goes on to prove that we’re also inhuman at the same time.

The story begins in the middle and works alternatingly backward and forward. We start with the life of this “sleeper” agent who has recently immigrated to California after the fall of Saigon 1975. The narration has the flavor of both justification and confession. We only know him as the ‘captain’, his rank as an aide to the general commanding the South Vietnam secret police, with whom he fled with the relatively small fraction of natives loyal to the Americans. His conflicted persona has early origins in his life as an offspring of a French priest and peasant Vietnamese girl, earning him lifelong revulsion and mistrust as a bastard. He has chosen a path set by the communists seeking freedom and independence from all colonialists, and his role of spy in the midst of his countrymen on the side of the American aggressors suits his chameleon character.

The pompous Oriental studies professor for whom he works as a menial assistant puts forth a theory that for him to balance the Asian and Western traits in his character will make him especially valuable for the collective effort to forge a way for East and West to coexist. While in many ways reviling his Western half, the idea of him being a one-man “melting pot” aligns with his mother’s mantra to him: “Remember, you're not half of anything, you're twice of everything”.

My weakness for sympathizing with others has much to do with my status as a bastard, which is not to say that being a bastard naturally predisposes one to sympathy. Many bastards behave like bastards, and I credit my gentle mother with teaching me the idea that blurring the lines between us and them can be a worthy behavior.

The captain truly does sympathize with the general in his integrity and honest choice to fight the communists. He admires the general’s efforts to get everyone who served with him out of country in the tragic chaos of the last days before total takeover of Saigon. We get a harrowing narrative of those last days, including the death of his best friend’s family. The caption also shares in the exiles’ sense of alienation and depression as they struggle to adapt to life in America. The ordinary Americans understand so little of what they have been through or what their blundering under naïve idealism has wreaked on their country (“No one asks poor people if they want war”). When the captain was an exchange student in the U.S. in high school, he didn’t feel this alienated, as it was natural to be treated as an exotic foreigner. Now it is easy to identify with the general trying not to succumb to despair over the loss of his county. Others do not do so well,
…a fair percentage collecting both welfare and dust, moldering in the stale air of subsidized apartments as their testes shriveled day by day, consumed by the metastasizing cancer called assimilation and susceptible to the hypochondria of exile.

Our protagonist also empathizes with the general’s daughter Lana, who embraces the wild life of the youth culture in California, going so far as to perform in skimpy dress with a musical group. Our captain is too human to resist her charms:
I quietly quaffed my cognac, discreetly admiring Lana's legs. Longer than the Bible and a hell of a lot more fun, they stretched forever, like an Indian yogi or an American highway shimmering through the Great Plains or the southwestern desert. Her legs demanded to be looked at and would not take no, non, nein, nyet, or even maybe for an answer.

Eventually, out captain gets drawn into the evolution of plans to lead an insurgency against the communist victors using resources of sympathetic right-wing Americans (shade of the “Bay of Pigs” incursion by expatriate Cubans). And this is exactly his job, to monitor and report in coded communications such counter-revolutionary activity to his handler. It’s so eerie how good our protagonist’s work is as a double agent, all founded on his human capacity to sympathize with others. But over and over in this tale we get this message:
A person’s strength was always his weakness, and vice versa.

He suffers when in the course of serving the general he has to participate in the elimination of exiles suspected of being communist agents. Back in Saigon, when he had to participate, even indirectly, in the torture of suspected Viet Cong for his work with the secret police, he was doubly guilty when the victim was a legitimate agent, and he could do nothing to intervene without blowing his cover.

This read totally twists you up. The career of a double agent is so far from the life of a true believer on either side of a conflict. As a reader, the beginnings of empathy for this deceptive character comes when he is tormented by the experience of ghosts of the innocent who die as collateral damage from his career. At one point he gets to act with a purpose in unity with both the communist and anticommunist drivers in his life: a service as an advisor to a movie director in the process of making a film along the lines of “Apocalypse Now”, i.e. “an epic about white men saving good yellow people from bad yellow people”, one “where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created.” When asked to review the script for authenticity with respect to Vietnamese culture, our captain is affronted that there is no speaking part for a Vietnamese character:
In this forthcoming Hollywood trompe d’oeil, all the Vietnamese of any side would come out poor, herded into the roles of the poor, the innocent, the evil, or the corrupt. Our fate was not to be merely mute; we were to be struck dumb.

Quite a worthwhile section of this book is devoted to our protagonist’s efforts to work with the the Vietnamese extras from the exile community at the filming location in the Philippines. This was the best part of the book for me. The parts the arrogant “auteur” puts into the film for Vietnamese characters ends up being ones of incredible brutality of the Vietnamese against each other, with Americans retaining hero status on the side. Not exactly what our captain wanted, but a fair allegory of the war itself. The mirror held up for American readers like me can be pretty powerful. For my own history I dodged the draft by raising my blood pressure and participated in anti-war actions like the big march on Washington, yet was taken aback with shame over Jane Fonda’s friendly confab with Ho Chi Minh and with our ultimate failure to stop the dominoes falling. No hand-washing can clean our guilt, but as a nation, we shrugged it all off:
Americans are a confused people because they can't admit this contradiction. They believe in a universe of divine justice where the human race is guilty of sin, but they also believe in a secular justice where human beings are presumed innocent.
You know how Americans deal with it? They pretend they are eternally innocent no matter how many times they lose their innocence. The problem is that those who insist on their innocence believe anything they do is just. At least we who believe in our own guilt know what dark things we can do.

The story is brought to a dramatic conclusion in a harrowing sections in the end, which I will steer clear of any revelation. The only hint I will give is that we learn why the narrative has the flavor of a confession of sorts. And we understand how our protagonist’s admirable efforts at loyalty both of his two “blood brother” friends from childhood end up contributing of some serious soul rendering, as one serves with the general’s crew and the other is his secret communist handler.

I feel this book will stand the test of time as a classic, up there with Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and Greene’s “The Quiet American".
Profile Image for Orsodimondo.
2,151 reviews1,688 followers
May 28, 2019

Sono una spia, un dormiente, un fantasma, un uomo con due facce. E un uomo con due menti diverse, anche se questo probabilmente non stupirà nessuno.
I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.

E per essere una buona spia la prima regola è non dire bugie, ma verità che possono significare come minimo due cose.
È risultare illeggibile.
È essere un uomo sincero che crede in tutto quello che dice anche quando mente.


È vero, gli US hanno fatto della guerra del Vietnam un’esclusiva, e noi occidentali di pari passo, tutti quanti insieme consideriamo che i vietnamiti siano stati solo comparse sfiorate marginalmente da un evento bellico che complessivamente è durato due decenni (la più lunga guerra americana).
È vero, il cinema ha fatto anche di peggio, i ruoli per i vietnamiti sono sempre stati meno che una comparsata, e sono stati sempre ingaggiati ‘attori’ asiatici, ma non necessariamente vietnamiti (tanto si assomigliano tutti).
È vero, debuttare con un romanzo di genere è un aiuto perché ci sono canoni e regole da rispettare, il che in qualche modo agevola il compito e il percorso.
È vero, questo esordio narrativo è molto debitore di Graham Greene e di Orwell (il tono satirico), come anche, ma più che di Conrad e Le Carré: e come dice lo stesso Nguyen, si vede quanto è stato importante l’approccio sinceramente umanista di Graham Greene dal fatto che un personaggio che commette qualcosa di brutto non diventa disumano, ma più profondamente umano.
È vero che la voce di Nguyen si presenta come una nuova prospettiva, un nuovo punto di vista, interno sia a quello occidentale, finora unico trionfatore, che a quello orientale, fin qui emarginato e taciuto.
È vero, questo è un gran bel romanzo, un autentico godimento.
E poi è altro, di più, e oltre.


È scritto intingendo la penna nel carbone, facendo ampio ricorso al black humour. È scritto con intelligenza e conoscenza. Anche se a volte Nguyen eccede, carica troppo, sbava, per me è scusato, si tratta d’esordio, imparerà a controllarsi meglio col tempo (ha già annunciato che scriverà il seguito).

Aprile è il più crudele dei mesi, confonde memoria e desiderio, come canta Eliot, e questo romanzo inizia proprio in aprile, quello del 1975, quando Saigon fu liberata. O secondo un’altra versione evacuata.
O seconda una terza lettura dei fatti fu occupata, segnandone la caduta.


Il protagonista è un uomo con due facce e due menti, il suo dualismo nasce in Vietnam e si sviluppa negli anni americani, l’università e poi il lavoro: ma è intrinseco sin dalla sua nascita, in quanto la mamma, tredicenne, era vietnamita, il padre, invece, occidentale, in quanto sacerdote cattolico francese.

In Il simpatizzante ci sono momenti memorabili, come la scena del percorso verso l’aeroporto di Saigon, quindi, verso la fuga, e la salvezza, attraverso strade deserte cosparse di divise militari abbandonate da chi cerca di non farsi riconoscere dai vietcong che stanno per entrare in città, che però non sono abbandonate ma lasciate sui marciapiedi ripiegate con cura, come l’ordine e il decoro vietnamita impongono.
Indimenticabile è anche la collaborazione del protagonista, che rimane sempre senza nome, in veste di interprete e consulente a un film di Hollywood sulla guerra in Vietnam girato nelle Filippine, che forse fonde un po’ tutte le pellicole dell’epoca, ma ricorda molto da vicino in particolare Apocalypse Now, come il regista, chiamato il Grande Autore, ricorda terribilmente Francis Ford Coppola.
E poi il lungo finale, il ritorno a ‘casa’, cento pagine nelle quali Nguyen sembra dire addio ai suoi modelli ispiratori (Greene, Orwell, Conrad, Le Carré), e sembra rivolgersi più ad Abu Ghraib, a Zero Dark Thirty, a Jack Bauer, a Kafka perfino, o a Genet.



Amo il profumo del napalm la mattina, odora di vittoria dice il comandante Kilgore-Robert Duvall.

Tutte le guerre sono combattute due volte: la prima volta sul campo di battaglia, poi nella memoria, dice il Simpatizzante.
Profile Image for Michael Finocchiaro.
Author 3 books5,539 followers
February 1, 2021
I can definitely see why this first book by Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer for 2016. A real page turner, it is a dark comedy about the Vietnam War and especially its aftermath seen from the north in a brilliant narrative style. The theme of schizophrenia is abundant and incredibly apt given the relatively little I could know about how Vietnamese people - survivors in country and refugees - despite having friends having lived through those scenarios and at the same time a dead step father who did three tours of duty in 'Nam in the 60s for the US Army (and told me gratefully few nightmarish stories about it). On the left spectrum of political belief, I have always had a bad conscious about both the heinous acts done in the name of freedom and independence on both sides of the lines dividing east and west, north and south, "right" and "wrong" and I feel that this book does an excellent job of trying illustrating this paradox. With the new war of West vs radical Islam, its message is still just as relevant and its reading is highly recommended.
This book set me off on a tangent of books about the Vietnam War, always a good sign!

My rating of all the Pulitzer Winners: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/1...
Profile Image for Violet wells.
433 reviews3,048 followers
January 29, 2019
There's so much going on in this novel, so many tones of voice that it's perhaps impossible to love everything. I had problems with the home run, an extended torture scene which extracts from the narrator the confession which, we learn, is this novel. Here the author overindulged the existentialist aspect of this novel for me which I never found quite convincing. The theme Nguyen chooses to bind together all his material is duality, a theme I found a bit facile and even counterproductive at times. The narrator is half Vietnamese and half French. He's a committed communist posing as an anti-communist. He's a man who can see both sides of every argument, as, of course, every good novelist has to be. But for me too big a deal was made of this split throughout. That he's a bastard overcomplicated a scenario that was already riddled with complication. It came across as an intellectual idea that was never quite convincingly dramatized in the narrative. That said, it's super impressive for a debut novel. The author clearly has an awful lot to get off his chest and luckily possessed the mental vitality to just about make it all cohere. There's probably enough material here for three novels. We experience the end of the Vietnam war, the life of a Vietnamese refugee in America and finally the re-education process back in communist Vietnam. He's probably at his most compelling when he's giving us a full-blooded satirical take on the immigrant's experience of America. Donald Trump and his most fervent supporters would hate this novel and the fun it makes of American culture! (One perhaps learns more about the immigrant experience in America than about life in Vietnam.) This reaches a peak when he works as an advisor on a Hollywood film about Vietnam war. "Movies were America's way of softening up the rest of the world, Hollywood relentlessly assaulting the mental defenses of audiences with the hit, the smash, the spectacle, the blockbuster, and, yes, even the box office bomb. It mattered not what story these audiences watched. The point was that it was the American story they watched and loved, up until the day that they themselves might be bombed by the planes they had seen in American movies."

He appears to be referring to Apocalypse Now and if so there's a savage attack on Francis Ford Coppola. Country music too comes in for a battering - "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. Beethoven's Ninth was the opus for Nazis, concentration camp commanders, and possibly President Truman as he contemplated atomizing Hiroshima, classical music the refined score for the high-minded extermination of brutish hordes. Country music was set to the more humble beat of the red-blooded, bloodthirsty American heartland."

So this is a novel of ideas and a political novel. Sometimes it's in deadly earnest; other times it's tongue in cheek. And at other times it aspires to being a kind of spy thriller since the author is a communist mole in constant danger of discovery, deployed to inform on the community of south Vietnamese exiles in America who are in league with CIA-affiliated groups. Perhaps Nguyen just had too much to say in this novel but he unquestionably possesses a wide range of literary skills and on the whole this was an exciting and compelling and informative read.
Profile Image for Richard (on hiatus).
160 reviews182 followers
August 12, 2019
As the Vietnam war stumbles to a close, America retreats and communist forces sweep in from the north. There is a rush to escape the country. Among the Americans and high ranking local military who hurry to the airbase are a top general of the Vietnamese army and his young right hand man, his captain - the hero or maybe anti-hero of this Pulitzer Prize winning novel - The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen.
The Captain is a deeply conflicted character. Seemingly loyal to the fiercely nationalistic general he is also a spy for the communists! Of his two closest, blood brother friends one is a soldier loyal to the government, the other is his communist handler. He is seduced by America ‘ ...... life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness ......’ etc but is true to his carefully reasoned communist ideology.
The Captain walks an uneasy and unpleasant tightrope between practical self interest and terrible guilt at the things he has to do to maintain his cover. He sees that war is complex and multifaceted and although basically loyal to the communist cause, has some sympathy with those on all sides
The Sympathiser examines the aftermath of the war from a Vietnamese point of view, it looks at those ex miliatary that landed in America - now working in car washes, fast food outlets and the black economy.
The Captain, still working with the general in Los Angeles, reports back to his handlers on these Vietnamese refugees who may one day organise and wish to claim back their homeland.
The Sympathiser gave me a lot to think about, not least about the way it was written. It was a book of contradictions. Sometimes charming and funny, sometimes brutal and dark. Parts were gripping, other parts dragged. At times realistic, at others, the narrative would become dreamlike and surreal.
The airlift from Saigon is genuinely gripping and evocative ........ scenes crackle with tenseness and gunfire, as helicopters hover in dark and stormy skies above the gaudy neon and desperation of the city.
There’s loads of humour - the calm, calculating gaze the Captain casts at the hypocrisy of the Americans, at his own shortcomings and at the newly Americanised Vietnamese is constantly wry and amusing.
I did however get bogged down in places. The language is not always easy and I often had to look up words (maybe not a bad thing) ...... eg ‘Proscenium’, ‘apsara’, ‘prosody’, ‘cajeputs’ etc. The novel is punctuated by long, elegant sentences, during which, if my mind drifted even slightly, I would lose the thread and have to return to the beginning. Paragraphs were very long and included speech without speech marks (sometimes confusing) as the text is written as a stream of consciousness confession by the Captain ie big blocks of text without break.
The Sympathiser is at times infuriating and gruelling but it’s also often brilliant. It’s a long book, mostly enjoyable and in my opinion a worthwhile read.
Profile Image for Elle (ellexamines).
1,084 reviews17.5k followers
January 14, 2021
I was in close quarters with some representative specimens of the most dangerous creature in the history of the world, the white man in a suit.

Sympathizer is one of the many books I’ve read for class this year and it’s taken me months to review it because it's just. so. good.

This book’s unnamed narrator is a spy for North Vietnam in the South who ends up going to America on the last plane out. So yes, Sympathizer is a spy story, but not anywhere close to a tone you’ve read before: this is a slow-paced story of black humor mixed with deep-running generational sadness, all wrapping into a story about identity. Trauma of memory, collective memory, erasure of memory, appropriation of memory, and a strange undercurrent of dark humor, featuring an anonymous and possibly-unreliable narrator who is just so compelling.

This is one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year and I am honestly so happy I got to read it. Here we go.

In his time in California, he is viewed as a half-breed of the “Oriental and Occidental”; in his time in the-newly communist Vietnam, parts of his confession are edited out with a blue pencil, not good enough for his new commandant. Parts of any story, be it Vietnamese or American, are edited out. He must remove the human parts, the flaws, stick to a narrative that appeals to one group — the happy but quiet immigrant or the repenter for all his American ways. So how can he find an identity that does not push him out?

He is a man caught between two identities and two competing ideologies that both seem increasingly flawed: everyone wants to find a side to blame for this war. The identity of war is what dictates its representation. Vietnam, the bad war, is a tragedy for America, but only for America; in Vietnam, the Term ‘American War’ invites Vietnamese to think of themselves “as victims of foreign aggression,” rather than an oftentime perpetrator and invador of Cambodia and Laos. As a reaction, Nguyen wishes to work towards a more inclusive memory of war; this is a part of the struggle for a collective memory, where our competing views can be brought towards the ‘reassuring style of American pluralism.’ He wishes to remember the forgotten of war, the marginalized, the minor, the women, the environment. And just as essential to this is art: art endures, and art requests that we remember.
“After the official memos and speeches are forgotten, the history books ignored, and the powerful are dust, art remains.” -Just Memory

We create resignation to the horrors of the world via our art, resignation to the fact that our side is, indeed, right. Instead of a thing we come to terms with via art, memory becomes an industry “ready to capitalize on history by selling memory to consumers hooked on nostalgia.” Just memory and just representation is only possible when the demonized and marginalized can “seize industries of memory.”

Without that representation of our identities, without a just memory of a war, how can we find our identities?

Nguyen sums it up perfectly: “our ambivalence about war’s identity simply expresses ambivalence about our own identities.” The ethics of memory are such that without just memory, without a just view on war and a just representation of war, our own identities — especially the identities of the marginalized — will be forfeit. And it is this dynamic of identity that Nguyen criticizes throughout The Sympathizer. And this is the ultimate power of his work — to put a cynical lens onto a land of war, an industry of memories meant for no one but white men, and come out with some grain of hope, that in the face of nothing, we can find something.

So overall, The Sympathizer is a question about representation. When dominant cultures so often corrupt representation to fit their preferred narrative, when the Sympathizer finds himself viewed through lenses rather than for himself, how can he find an identity of his own?

My SECOND pick for fivestarathon was a resounding success, simultaneously keeping me away from homework in my postcolonial lit class for another three weeks and forcing me to build a mental shrine to Viet Thanh Nguyen. I loved it: sorry for writing such a long review, because I wrote a ten-page paper on this. I’d really recommend this.

TW: rape, some freaking weird sexual content.
contemporary global lit: book 2
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Profile Image for Esil.
1,118 reviews1,337 followers
February 12, 2017
I loved The Refugees. I loved the writing and I loved Viet Thanh Nguyen's perspective on the experiences of Vietnamese refugees in the United States. So I was excited to read The Sympathizer, Thanh Nguyen's Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Unfortunately, I didn't love it in the way I loved The Refugees. I'm conflicted as to why:

-One of Thanh Nguyen's strengths is his incredible writing -- at times playful, often cutting elegantly to the heart of the matter and always strong and intelligent. For that reason alone, I would read anything he writes.

-One of Thanh Nguyen's other strengths is his insight into his characters and their mixed motivations. He is a master at brilliant moments of reflection.

-Having said this, at times The Sympathizer felt like too much work, almost like the cleverness got in the way of the story. Thanh Nguyen has created a very complex first person narrator who tells a complex shifting shifty story. The unnamed narrator comes to the United States amongst a group of Vietnamese refugees, but his allegiances still lie ostensibly with the Viet Cong in Vietnam. His story is one of conflicting allegiances and inner conflict. It's a fascinating topic, but somehow the delivery felt almost too clever. The narrative string pivoted relentlessly. It was a bit dizzying and sometimes felt like form was giving over to substance.

-There is an underlying sarcasm to the narration. It may reflect self-loathing or the emotional distance the narrator must keep from everyone in order to maintain his role as a "Sympathizer". This makes for clever prose, but it does create an emotional distance between reader and narrator. While there is a pretence that the narrator is bearing his soul, is he really? The last two chapters shift the ground a bit, but not enough to change the overall effect for me.

-My 3 star rating reflects my personal experience reading The Sympathizer. However, there were definitely many 5 star passages -- for example, instances when the narrator reflected on his childhood or his conflicted role that were truly brilliant.

Based on the writing alone, sign me up for Thanh Nguyen's future books. But The Sympathizer is definitely not for everyone.

Thank you to GR friends Diane and Angela for reading this one in sync with me. It was my first buddy read. It was a great experience, and certainly helpful to get your insights while not feeling alone in my struggles with this one.
Profile Image for Perry.
632 reviews516 followers
July 30, 2022
Potent Personalization of Vietnam War's Fallout on Viet-Americans [Winner 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Literature]

This novel personalized for me the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese in a way no movie or book has. It is written as the first person account of a South Vietnamese captain who was born a "bastard" to a Vietnamese mother who was seduced and impregnated by his father, a Catholic priest, who fails to recognize the captain as a son. The narrator/captain is a sympathizer to the communist overthrow of Vietnam (and reports certain activities in southern Calif. in the years after the overthrow), yet no one should get the impression that this tsunamic novel is in some way sympathetic to communism or communists. The idea crossed my mind before reading the book.

Instead, this novel, full of levity and humor, is a substantial, captivating and intellectually stimulating novel that actualizes, in human terms, an indictment of the USA's treatment of the Vietnamese during and after the war (all here in the States) but it much more harshly denounces 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?).

The Animal Farm will always stick with me on the evils of communism, particularly in Russia. Now The Sympathizer has scarred a slice of my soul with the devastating effects on a country and its countrymen of a communist regime (and makes the point that many of the former revolutionaries saw the error after it was too late). Moreover, the book examines of the more general evils corrupting men/women in power, all ideas of government aside.

This novel seems perfect for high school and college students studying the Vietnam War and the era surrounding it, particularly from the point of view of the Vietnamese.

A highest recommendation.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,048 followers
September 28, 2016
I read this book for many reasons - Pulitzer winner, and a book club pick for my in-person group. We discussed it last night, and I wanted to wait to weigh in until that discussion, but also until I had finished reading the author's non-fiction book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (on the long list for the National Book Award as we speak.)

When you read the two books back to back, it is easy to see how the eleven years of research that went into the non-fiction academic treatment of a book on war and memory also provided the natural breeding grounds for a biting novel about the Vietnam War. Or, should I clarify, the war we refer to as the Vietnam War, or even more often, just "Vietnam." And I need to clarify because Nguyen is writing this novel from the Vietnamese perspective, not necessarily catering to what white Americans want to hear. The author claims status as a forever refugee, a product of war, his entire life trajectory a result of having to leave his home as a child. (A curious person can learn even more about the author's perspective in this illuminating interview.)

In case it sounds like I am saying this is a didactic novel, I would beg to differ. The different point of view is very effective, but also necessary. Why are we only seeing the story of a war in a country not our own through the lens of war movies we make? (If this topic interests you, definitely read his non-fiction work.) But the entire novel is also slowly revealed as a confession, written by a central unnamed character (I'm guessing his name is Viet) during his time in a Reeducation camp. These camps were real things, and the last 100 pages are a brutal account of psychological and physical torture and brainwashing.

So there is the point of view (powerful), the approach (confession), but the greatest element of the novel for me is the writing. Nguyen plays with the English language in a way I haven't seen. I don't think he would claim his background as the reason because he has been in the United States for most of his life, in fact is an English professor, among other duties. But I was constantly amused/surprised by his use of words, taking a word like perineum that is almost inclusively a body part and using it to refer to a time of day that is hidden from view, gross, and better slept through:
"...We followed our usual routine and drank with joyless discipline until we both passed out. I woke up in the perineum of time between the very late hours of the evening and the very early hours of the morning, grotty sponge in my mouth..."
That is an example of me stopping, putting the book aside, looking up the word, asking, "Do we use that word that way?", finding we don't, but deciding we should because obviously it works. It is this clever crafting of words that kept me reading, more than the events, more than the unnamed agent antics of the central character ("a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces....")

I really love the last three pages, but I will leave those for the reader to mull over.
Profile Image for Tam.
402 reviews192 followers
May 5, 2016
I see the value that this book contributes to American literature. I read New York Times review just a few minutes ago (didn't want anything to interfere with my understanding of the book), and for most part I'd like to agree.

Few years I go when I was still in college, I took this class in art history and the famous Vietnam Veteran Memorial came up. Let's not talk about the architecture's significance, but my young mind at that time was just full of surprise: "What about the South Vietnamese? Where are their names?"

No, they were not recognized, and definitely no memorial for them. Not in Vietnam, sure. Not here in US, either. These soldiers were faceless and voiceless. The closest thing I came across is "The Other Vietnam Memorial" by Chris Burden in Chicago, but the names on the bright orange glasses are fake, generated by computer algorithm.

Sure, there are millions of North Vietnam casualities, many also nameless and faceless, but not as voiceless. There are memorials everywhere, there are praises in history textbooks, incense sticks lighted on the national veteran day. They have a place in history of the nation.

What about these south Vietnamese soldiers?

As I write this review I understand more the pain of the refugees. There is this nostalgia of a lost nation, rejected by the new regime in power. There is this effort to assimilate, but we all know Americans are pretty slow in accepting non-whites as full Americans. So they hover in between.

The book announces to the world about their existence.

But personally I'm not a big fan of the writing, just stylistically. And something's off. It doesn't feel real enough. It's a social criticism, of all sides of the war, which rings true many times. But it's not real for me on the personal level, on the psychological level. The war tragedies for families, for individuals, seem like a movie, sad and brutal, but I'm not connected. The political/social ideas that need to be expressed seem to be prioritized over the human stories. I don't even feel much for this character that we know the most, this unnamed sympathizer.

That's why it's a two star. Simply my taste.

Profile Image for Thomas.
1,459 reviews8,559 followers
January 7, 2021
I appreciated the themes of The Sympathizer though the delivery of the themes did not resonate with me. I like how Viet Thanh Nguyen portrays war from the Vietnamese perspective and counteracts the American-centric worldview of most novels and narratives of war. As a Vietnamese American who grew up in the United States myself, I feel like I had been brainwashed into believing the mainstream American perspective of the war, ignoring the United States’ complicity in imperialism and related wrongs (so embarrassing to see my past Goodreads reviews/ratings from high school, yikes). Nguyen addresses so many relevant themes in The Sympathizer, such as the power that white people hold in society through white supremacy, the disturbing consequences of war, and the lack of representation of people of color in Hollywood. I appreciate that Nguyen uses his platform both through this book and generally (e.g., Twitter) to call out racism, xenophobia, and imperialism.

At the same time, I could not really connect with this book on an emotional level because the writing felt so intellectual. I think I prefer Nguyen’s nonfiction to his fiction because in his nonfiction I can feel more of his genuine voice and his argumentative style, whereas with his fiction I feel more distant. I could infer Nguyen’s intellect through his writing yet removed from the characters’ and their emotions.

I always want to give books by Vietnamese writers praise because there are so few! However, I felt how I felt about this one. The next book by a Vietnamese writer I will read is Sigh, Gone by Phuc Tran which I have coming up soon.
Profile Image for Sr3yas.
223 reviews997 followers
June 25, 2018
The winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Usually, when I write my thoughts about a story, I look for a good quote as a lead in. Sometimes, it's hard to find such a quote, whereas in other cases, I find myself having a luxury of choosing from as many as a dozen good quotes that I loved while reading the novel.

But with Sympathizer, it's just plain crazy. When I reached the last page of the novel, I looked back at the highlighted lines I saved, and I found myself with over EIGHTY different mesmerizing quotes. And at that moment, the intuition that I've read one of the well-crafted literature written was confirmed for me.

❝ My weakness for sympathizing with others has much to do with my status as a bastard, which is not to say that being a bastard naturally predisposes one to sympathy. Many bastards behave like bastards.❞

The Sympathizer is our unnamed narrator, a US-educated non-combat South Vietnamese military man who is secretly a mole working for Vietcong. (Helluva Resume, My dear unnamed narrator). The story is the written confession of our leading man, penned for his jail keepers. His confession starts with the fall of Saigon in 1975, followed by his immigration to the USA with his commander who is a military General, his friend Bon and other escapees, all while acting as a spy and reporting to his friend in Vietcong.

❝ Besides my conscience, my liver was the most abused part of the body.❞

In many novels, you can feel the author pulling the strings as the story switches characters, POVs or Inner monologues. But With Viet Thanh Nguyen's novel, there is not a single trace of outside influence. The story belongs to the narrator and him alone. This particular style truly made the events, emotions, characters, sentences.... everything complex and full of life.

❝ I was in close quarters with some representative specimens of the most dangerous creature in the history of the world, the white man in a suit.❞

Sympathizer masterly handles a lot of fascinating themes: War, oriental representation, political chess games, and immigration, all while narrating them with a delightful black comedic tone. One of the best parts of the story is when our narrator is hired by a Hollywood director to act as an advisor for a Vietnam war-themed movie. The obvious representation of natives as mere plot devices by Hollywood movies (Platoon, Apocalypse now, Full metal jacket) was appropriately bashed at this point and it was glorious.

❝ After all, nothing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence.❞

I'm chopping one star off because of the last act, which reminded me of Shūsaku Endō's novel, Silence. It was a little too abstract for me, yet true implications of the finale are fascinating.

Overall, The Sympathizer's strength lies with its stunningly constructed sentences and its unique perspective that offers something entirely new. Undoubtedly, this is a story which deserves all the accolades it received.

❝ Disarming an idealist was easy. One only needed to ask why the idealist was not on the front line of the particular battle he had chosen.❞

Profile Image for Philip.
500 reviews673 followers
July 17, 2020
4.5ish stars.

At times hilarious, at others disturbing, and sometimes both at once, this is a story about war, identity, friendship, loyalty and understanding.

I'll admit to not having the most extensive understanding of the Vietnam War. It was before my time and if I was ever taught about it in school (I'm sure it had to have come up at some point, right?) it's lost on me now. My background knowledge basically comes from watching Apocalypse Now (which is the obvious inspiration for a movie in the novel to which our narrator lends his perspective) which is hardly an exhaustive resource. After reading, I feel like I can both sympathize with and condemn all of the parties involved in the War.

Our nameless narrator is a "man of two minds" continuously caught in the middle of several parties. He's half-Vietnamese, half-French, and American by assimilation although none of his countries accept him. Add to that his communist sympathies as a Vietnamese refugee in America, reporting on the goings-on to his superiors who are reading his hidden messages more closely than we realize. I've read plenty of stories where the hero is from multiple worlds without being fully accepted by any of them, but never done more masterfully than in this novel. As the narrator sympathizes with nearly everyone he meets, we can't help but sympathize with the tragedies he experiences, even the ones brought by his own hand.

There are shades of Kurt Vonnegut (particularly Mother Night) in the black humor and the clever use of language that is simultaneously profound, provocative, and comical. The author somehow finds a way to use a woman's cleavage as metaphor in such an insightful way it's a little bit embarrassing. He makes light of several events in ways that are just cringe-worthy (squid? coke bottle?) it's hard to read but even harder not to.

For a debut author, Viet Than Nguyen is astoundingly assured in his writing. His prose is beyond impressive. The pace is inconsistent and some parts felt like I was slogging through (except for in a few parts, this is hardly the thriller it claims to be) but overall an informative, beautifully written historical novel. Highly recommended.

Posted in Mr. Philip's Library
Profile Image for Rowena.
500 reviews2,465 followers
February 10, 2017
"I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times, when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you – that is a hazard, I must confess. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear."- Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer

I attended a panel last year where Roxane Gay, Marlon James, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Shilpi Somaya Gowda were discussing the theme of home in their writing. For immigrants home can be a touchy subject but clearly it can produce great literature.

And this one example: only a person who is from the culture, or who has a connection to the culture, could write something like this with such nuance and insight. I find it intriguing how satire and humour is used to tell tough stories and I am impressed by how well Nguyen does that in this book.We all know about the Vietnam war and have probably seen some horrific images from there, but Nguyen uses satire to tell us the story and it works really well in a way I can’t quite put into words right now. I laugh at Nguyen calling 1975 Vietnam a “jackfruit republic that served as a franchise of the United States”, though I can see how awful that reality must have been.

Nguyen’s protagonist was interesting too, as a half-French half-Vietnamese communist agent, who was both an insider and an outsider. I appreciated the perspective of someone who doesn’t quite belong anywhere, who, because of his peripheral position in society, gives such insight to both Vietnamese and American culture. It brought to mind the unique perspectives minority writers bring to their writing, the nuances they can pick up that others might not be able to:

“Ah, the Amerasian, forever caught between worlds and never knowing where he belongs! Imagine if you did not suffer from the confusion you must constantly experience, feeling the constant tug-of-war inside you and over you, between Orient and Occident. ‘East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet’, as Kipling so accurately diagnosed”.

Nguyen picks out racial microaggressions and western hypocrisy without naming them as such, and then proceeds to show us how ridiculous they are. He makes observations that are incisive and hilarious:

"When he interviewed me, he wanted to know whether I spoke any Japanese. I explained that I was born in Gardena. He said, Oh, you nisei, as if knowing that one word means he knows something about me. You’ve forgotten your culture, Ms. Mori, even though you’re only second generation. Your issei parents, they hung on to their culture. Don’t you want to learn Japanese? Don’t you want to visit Nippon? For a long time I felt bad. I wondered why I didn’t want to learn Japanese, why I didn’t already speak Japanese, why I would rather go to Paris or Istanbul or Barcelona rather than Tokyo. But then I thought, Who cares? Did anyone ask John F. Kennedy if he spoke Gaelic and visited Dublin or if he ate potatoes every night or if he collected paintings of leprechauns? So why are we supposed to not forget our culture? Isn’t my culture right here since I was born here? Of course I didn’t ask him those questions. I just smiled and said, You’re so right, sir. She sighed. It’s a job."

It’s really a fascinating novel that deserves all its accolades.

Something I remember from the panel is that Nguyen was discussing censorship in Vietnam and how a publisher in Vietnam wanted to translate the book into Vietnamese. As Nguyen said, “I’d be surprised to learn that I’d published a novella!” His great sense of humour was what led me to read this book and I’m so glad I did.
Profile Image for Meghan.
Author 1 book9 followers
May 12, 2015
Let's read a book about having sex with a dead squid. Because that happens in this book. Somehow I have an ability to pick out books like this. I suppose it's a gift. Just something about me that makes me me.

(Squid sex is only like two pages of three hundred and fifty, but I feel it's one of those things that sort of encapsulates what type of book a book is.)

The Sympathizer is a long book that could have been about one hundred and fifty pages shorter. It's a book of contradictions, such as the narrator incensed about other people erasing his comrades' proper names, ignoring the fact that he doesn't give proper names to a bunch of people either. It's a book where you keep thinking there's going to be a flashback with an origin story, except that flashback never comes. There's a lot of adjectives and description and over-writing, those stylistic quirks that other people find charming or engrossing, but which I just get annoyed with. And I got annoyed.


There's some stuff that isn't so bad. I appreciate the narrator tells you right away he's a double-agent. None of this sudden-surprise-twist-ending nonsense that has become so popular. He's a double-agent, his one friend Man is a communist, and his other friend Bon, is not. This is where the one hundred and fifty pages of completely transparent criticism of Francis Ford Coppola and Apocalypse Now could be cut (What's the point of that sidetrack? Unnecessary. Lose it.) and replaced with something, even a sentence of why, of three close friends, one-third went to one ideology, while two-thirds went to another.

The book isn't free of some twists, although they are obvious so I don't know if one can call them that. I'll say reveals instead I suppose. There's a lot of what I call blah blah blah political discussions, as one might assume would happen at the locale in which they happen in the novel (trying to avoid spoilers I am).

I don't know. It took me forever to read this book. I feel bad saying anything negative about it since the author clearly worked hard. So I'll say nothing and laugh because nothing ends up being vital to the story: Nothing is less precious than a bad review.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen went on sale April 7, 2015.

I received a copy free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,339 reviews697 followers
February 26, 2022
“The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen is a powerful story of the of the Vietnam War told in the format of a confession. Nguyen chose to tell his story via his unnamed narrator in the form of a confession because all prisoners of the Viet Cong were sent to reeducation “camps”, where they needed to write their confessions

Author Viet Thanh Nguyen writes an involved story from a Vietnamese man’s perspective. To make it more interesting, Nguyen made him a Viet Cong spy, planted in the southern Vietnamese military government. We get the backstory of our narrator, prior to the war. He was educated in the USA and understood some of American customs before the war began. This knowledge is what allowed him to be a government official.

Our narrator and the top officials he worked with escaped through American evacuation efforts. Nguyen’s version of the fall of Saigon is one of hell for the Vietnamese people. They ended up in California, trying to make a life, with little American assistance. As a spy, he kept tabs on his top officials and reported back to the Viet Cong.

Nguyen is brilliant at describing the day-to-day life of a Vietnamese person living in America both before and after the war. Additionally, we are treated to glimpses of life in Vietnam before the war and during the war. He writes so well, that it’s corporal: you smell the stench, you feel the slime, you hear the ear piercing explosions.

Nguyen wanted to write a novel that illuminated the sad fact that Americans still see a Vietnamese person and thinks of the war. The wrath and anger of the war, the misconceptions and misunderstandings about the war fell on our returning troops and the Vietnamese refugees. Still, to this day, the refuges from that war suffer the misplaced anger. Nguyen uses unexpected humor in his story, making it a tragicomedy, and easier to read.

This is a stunning story. If you love this one, read “The Refugees”. It is amazing!
Profile Image for Erin.
2,956 reviews485 followers
September 10, 2017
13h 53 m narrated by Francois Chau

To begin this review I feel the need to share that as I was listening to the audiobook I began to wonder how books qualify for the Pulitzer Prize. So I did a bit of searching online and discovered that "It( the Pulitzer) recognizes distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life, published during the preceding calendar year. " I then spent sometime perusing the complete list of winners and nominees of this prize since 1917. It appears that my personal journey with books that have eyed or won this prize is a real mixed bag. On one hand, I have books like Gone With the Wind( winner), The Good Earth( winner), To Kill A Mockingbird( winner), Lonesome Dove( winner) and The Snow Child( nominee)that I gloriously loved. On the other, I see books like The Color Purple, The Old Man and the Sea, and All the Light We Cannot See (all winners)were "okayish" reads for me.

The Sympathizer is the 2016 winner of the Pulitzer and takes readers on a journey from Saigon to Los Angeles. It took me over a month to get through a 14h audibook and I feel completly empty of any type of emotion. But how can this be? There is no argument from me that this is a heavy topic. I don't shirk away from that type of book and to have the events of that time period from the point of view of a Vietnamese person rather than a Westerner. So important! The fact that we see the plight of this character as he is forced to flee the land of his birth and try and carve a life for himself in a country struggling to continue with a life post-Vietnam. This book recounts racism in the US and in Hollywood and the type of narrative that needed to be told regarding the war. What an important story to be told, right? Yes, it is! Sadly, I just became further and further ambivalent to what the narrator was experiencing.

Earlier this year, I read " The Things They Carried" and I wept over and over again and I have never been a person in a situation where I am facing the draft. But Tim O'Brien was able to connect with me in a way that Viet Thanh Nguyen appeared to fail. But still I find myself asking why? As I glance at my fellow reviewers, I realize that I wasn't swayed by the slow beautiful writing that so many others praise. Instead I felt myself heaving many sighs and muttering " for the love of my time and patience get to the bloody point." So, have I failed to see THE point(s) that the author wanted the North American/Western European audience to grasp? Perhaps!

Then I thought that it could be that it was the narration. But I then tried to pick up a hard copy of the book and felt that after one page- I just couldn't see myself trying to sit there and read the book. Maybe it will work for others, but The Sympathizer failed to capture my reading attention and will most likely end up in that list of "okayish"reads.

But I will leave my review with one interesting item that I discovered as I was learning more about the Pulitzer Prize for literature. Sinclair Lewis actually refused the prize in 1926 stating
"Those terms are that the prize shall be given "for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood." This phrase, if it means anything whatever, would appear to mean that the appraisal of the novels shall be made not according to their actual literary merit but in obedience to whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment."
Profile Image for Liz.
2,022 reviews2,525 followers
January 9, 2017

I’m so disappointed with this book. It started off so strong but then lost me as it went on. A book about the end of the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese refugees that come to America . The narrator, the unnamed Captain, however, is not pro-American. He is a double agent for the Communists. Initially, he is tasked with working as an aide de camp for a South Vietnamese general. He leaves with the general and family to go to America. “I am a spy, a spook, a man of two faces.” He is a sympathizer, but in his eyes, the sympathizer is able to see both sides; to sympathize with each. As he later says, “it was the best kind of truth, the one that meant at least two things”.

Viet Thanh Nguyen does an amazing job of describing the fall of Saigon. He also gave me an appreciation for the South Vietnamese culture. This first part of the book was so strong and I was hooked.

There is a dry humor to this book. Some of the descriptions are laugh out loud funny. But humorous or not, all the descriptions perfectly capture the mood and era.

The book touches on a lot of issues - war, loyalty, betrayal, the sense of other, discrimination, art as propaganda and who writes history. While the writing is beautiful throughout, I have to admit that the middle of the book really dragged. I kept losing interest. My interest came back at the end, but nothing to compare to the strength of the beginning of the book.

I can't say I think this was worthy of the Pulitzer, but I appear to be in the minority.

Profile Image for Rebecca.
52 reviews
April 20, 2016
Edit: I'm SO ANGRY this won the Pulitzer Prize. As in, legitimately mad. Sigh. I want to be in charge of every prize committee in the world.

I was really excited about this book and the premise actually didn't disappoint. It is an untraditional spy/war novel, where most of the action takes place after what might be considered the "end" of the Vietnam war, creating a kind of spy-in-exile theme. But I couldn't personally get past the heaviness of the writing. I should be able to finish a book of this length in about two days but this one was a complete slog. The author is an academic and I guess I felt like this book has the soul of an academic work rather than the soul of fiction. That's obviously a very personal preference and if you like this style of writing, I thought the plot and premise was, on the whole, quite good. I just couldn't get excited once I was finally reading it.
Profile Image for Bianca.
1,043 reviews903 followers
December 29, 2017
I loved Thanh Nguyen's The Refugees, so I was eager to read his Pulitzer winner debut novel.

I'm glad to report that my admiration of Thanh Nguyen's talent remains intact.
There are a gazillion reviews of this novel, so I'll only write some thoughts.

I don't recall ever reading a book about the Vietnam war. I watched some movies on the subject, but they were distinctly American. To be honest, I don't think I grasped what exactly had happened.

The Sympathizer is an important novel, as it's written by a Vietnamese born writer, from a Vietnamese perspective. Sure, it's got the benefit of hindsight, it goes without saying that Thanh Nguyen must have heard many stories from his parents and other Vietnamese people.

It is a complex novel that deals with a variety of subjects: war, history, refugees, communism, race. What stood out for me is the way Nguyen went about it, via the narration of a Vietnamese captain who is a spy and sympathizer of the communists. He's extremely articulate, self-effacing and self-deprecating, while extremely observant and analytical, full of humour and truisms. The satire and the absurd make appearances as well. The language is to die for. The characterisations are outstanding.

I should have read this novel instead of listening to the audiobook because I was a bit distracted and drifted at times. Regardless, I was so impressed and charmed, that I'm going to give it 4.5 stars rounded up.
Profile Image for Snotchocheez.
595 reviews322 followers
May 25, 2016
3.5 stars

I can see how The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen's complex novel focusing on the post-Vietnam War experience, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year. It's plenty thought-provoking and weighty, uncompromsing in its candor. It has a snarky sense of humor. It provides a underrepresented (to contemporary fiction, anyway) viewpoint of the Vietnamese diaspora here in the United States. Would it, though, have gotten my vote for the Pulitzer? Nope. I can think of several titles more deserving. Even one of the runners-up for the Prize, Kelly Link's bizarre short story collection Get In Trouble was more deserving, in my opinion.

Long-time GR friends will probably be tired of my ongoing grousing about authors that dump quotation marks. A (very) select few authors can get away with it (Colum McCann is one) and that's only because he's been able to shuck quotation marks in such a way that is not confusing or disruptive to the reading experience. Mr. Nguyen, a relative unknown to the literary world prior to his Pulitzer Prize win, does not get an exemption from me. I'm all for creative license, but not when it serves to obfuscate or confuse. Nguyen's choice to dump quotation marks only gave me a headache, trying to parse who said what. One can argue that there isn't much dialogue in this book to warrant my vitriol, but I stand behind it. (Authors: thumbing your nose at convention (by dumping quote marks) is not creative license. It's an affectation. It addles. It confuses. Give. It. A. Rest.)

It's a shame, too, as there were quite a few good (even, great) things about this novel: I really enjoyed the (spot-on) descriptions of mid-to-late-'70s Southern California and its Vietnamese post-war enclaves: Westminster, Long Beach, Monterey Park et.al. The idea that as reprehensible as the United States' actions were, there were plenty of Vietnamese that were not beyond reproach, either. The hilarity of the unnamed protagonist (once a captain in the Vietnamese army, turned refugee) getting a job as a cultural advisor with an "auteur" filmmaker (a very thinly veiled FF Coppola, a very thinly veiled "Apocalypse Now"). The nutso idea of a Vietnamese army general with the bright idea of rallying his fellow expatriated boat people who'd fled to the States to foment an insurrectionist movement to topple the communists whilst in the desert north of Los Angeles.

Just a lot of great things to recommend the book (though many of them undone by overly obvious efforts to be "creative") make what should've been (and indeed was deemed) a winner fall a little short of perfection in my estimation..
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