The Sympathizer

by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Paper Book, 2015

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

New York : Grove Press, [2015]

Description

Follows a Viet Cong agent as he spies on a South Vietnamese army general and his compatriots as they start a new life in 1975 Los Angeles.

Media reviews

...The Sympathizer is an excellent literary novel, and one that ends, with unsettling present-day resonance, in a refugee boat where opposing ideas about intentions, actions and their consequences take stark and resilient human form.

User reviews

LibraryThing member jwhenderson
I do not always enjoy reading prize-winning books but this is one that is not only enjoyable but also suspenseful and historical. It is a unique mix of realistic action and superb emotional detail. The author also filled it with literary references beginning with the opening lines -- a clever allusion to the great novel, Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison.

The novel has an anonymous narrator who lives a complicated and fascinating life as a double agent, publicly serving as an aide to a South Viet Namese general while secretly being a spy for North Viet Nam. He is conflicted about where he stands within his political beliefs and in the world itself. His efforts to survive in two worlds at once lead him into complicated and exciting situations as the novel progresses.

When the story begins, the narrator, who remains unnamed throughout the novel, is being held captive and forced to write his confession for the commandant. He begins his confession at a point in time when he is still in Vietnam and Saigon is about to fall. This leads to one of the most suspenseful sections of the story as he and the General's entourage attempt to escape from Saigon during the last days before the city succumbs to the North Viet Namese troops. They succeed and he returns to Los Angeles where he had previously attended school.

The theme of Betrayal pervades the novel. From the beginning the narrator is a man whose life is filled with moments of betrayal. His first betrayal is in that he keeps his identity as a communist a secret from one of his best friends, Bon. He and Man lie to Bon about their political views and even lie to him by saying that Man will be following them to America as they leave Vietnam because they know Bon will not go otherwise. The narrator really lives a life in which he must betray someone on a daily basis while he is a spy.

There is also a theme of doubling as the narrator is a double agent. But the narrator is “double” in another significant sense that frames this work: He’s biracial, with a Vietnamese mother and a French father, a mixed-race “bastard” who is bullied and ostracized his whole life.

As the story unfolds, the narrator is increasingly hard to figure. He has a few friends in L.A. and an American girlfriend, but he seems perpetually unmoored. Even though he is writing a confession, he often straddles the two opposing sides, sympathizing with “the enemy,” so that he operates from a murky morality. He is a communist but not a particularly ideological or zealous one.
The novel contains comic moments to offset the suspense of the action and the emotional tension of maintaining a double life. While it turns darker in the final section when the narrator returns to Viet Nam with the General to assist the resistance the fine writing carries you through to the end. The totality of the story provides a new and interesting perspective on a moment in American history that many like myself lived through. This inventive tale is above all a great read that I would recommend to anyone interested in the history of our not too distant past.
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LibraryThing member thorold
I haven't read much on the Vietnam War and its consequences - other than The quiet American - but if you'd asked me, I would have guessed that there must have been stacks of postcolonial novels written over the past forty years or so retelling the story from a Vietnamese point of view. It seems such an obvious thing - probably the most visible colonial conflict in most of our lifetimes, and one that has left almost as big a footprint in US culture as Algeria did in France. Judging by the fuss everyone is making about this book, however, it looks as though no-one can have had a serious go at it before Nguyen. All credit to him for taking it on, then!

The result comes out a little bit like a Vietnamese version of 2015's high-profile postcolonial novel, Meursault, contre-enquête. But pumped up to a decent American length, and with a lot more heavy weapons, naturally. It's still very much a novel written by an academic, full of complicated allusions to other books. The opening, as the Guardian review points out, is a pastiche of the famous opening of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, later on (amongst much else) we get echoes of Graham Greene and a chapter-length send-up of the shooting of Apocalypse Now (which I've never seen, but Nguyen helpfully lists half a dozen books about it in his bibliography).

The narrator somehow keeps forgetting that he's supposed to be a junior army officer and starts giving the reader seminars on postcolonial theory. This is a little odd to start with, but you get used to it, and it doesn't really distract (I'm much more used to professor-talk than army-officer-talk, anyway - I'd probably find the latter distracting). He makes a lot of good and relevant points about how the experience of colonialism damages a society, but most are very familiar, and the plot devices he uses to put his nameless narrator in a position to experience them seem more than a little over the top (he's not only a CIA-trained South Vietnamese officer spying for the Viet Cong, but also the illegitimate Eurasian child of a French priest and his 13-year-old Vietnamese maid...).

Nguyen is at his best in the big set-piece scenes - the evacuation from Saigon, the film-set, the torture and interrogation sequences. And perversely, these are the ones where he is free to write like an American and put aside his postcolonial principles for the sake of some graphic violence and a few loud bangs. In between times, the book tends to wander a little bit, but there are also some nice smaller-scale bits of writing.

There's a better, less American, postcolonial novel on Vietnam waiting to be written, evidently, but until it is, this one will do pretty well. Probably doesn't deserve quite as many awards as it's received, but still not a bad attempt.
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LibraryThing member ShawIslandLibrary
Anything having to do with the Vietnam War is difficult terrain. As someone who was opposed to the war, and who hoped for a National Liberation Front victory, I was wary of reading a novel written from a South Vietnamese refugee perspective. I was surprised when I realized that the first person narrative was a "Viet Cong" sympathizer, acting as a spy within the crumbling South Vietnam/American alliance. The novelist then cleverly reveals an ability to tell the story from both sides, without insulting either one. Towards the end of the novel, the narrator's words struck me with the difficult truth of the experience: "…I understood, at last, how our revolution had gone from being the vanguard of political change to the rearguard of hoarding power. In this transformation, we were not unusual. Hadn't the French and the Americans done exactly the same? Once revolutionaries themselves, they had become imperialists, colonizing and occupying our defiant little land, taking away our freedom in the name of saving us. Our revolution took considerably longer than theirs, and was considerably bloodier, but we made up for lost time. When it came to learning the worst habits of our French masters and their American replacements, we quickly proved ourselves the best… Having liberated ourselves in the name of independence and freedom…we then deprived our defeated brethren of the same." In the end, we need to carefully and compassionately define ourselves as "Sympathizers."
(Brian)
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
I read this book because it won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 2016, It is the 89th such winner I have read. The Pulitzer prize for fiction has been awarded 89 times, so you can see I have read every such winner. This book started well and I found it good reading for a while, as it relates with verve the escape of the protagonist from Vietnam when Saigon fell to the Communists. The protagonist, though employed by a general in the South Vietnamese Army, is a spy who has worked for the Communists and he continues doing so after coming to California. He is a "consultant" for an American filmmaker doing a movie about Vietnam in the Philippines and that segment is also of interest and good reading. But then he joins the group which goes to Thailand to invade Vietnam. Apparently such a foolish episode actually happened, even though it seems ridiculous. He is of course captured and tortured and the novel then fully lives up to its catigorization as "absurdist". The account include much noxious description. I could not feel anything for the protagonist, who is a fallen-away Catholic who murders people for no good reason so that he underwent torture is not as saddening as it might be if he were a sympathetic character. The final portion of the book makes it one of the most repulsive Pulitzer winner I have read.… (more)
LibraryThing member joyhclark
This, I believe, is my first literary foray into the Vietnam War, or more accurately, its aftermath (I'm not counting Forrest Gump). Told from the prospective of a dual agent - working for the southern army while subversively providing secrets to the Viet Cong - The Sympathizer provides a touching humane portrait of those caught in the middle, between their homeland and the west, between friendship and duty, and between the two sides of loyalty. Thought-provoking and gut-wrenching, creating a "sympathizer" of the reader.… (more)
LibraryThing member Hagelstein
Among the Vietnamese refugees pining for home “the most important thing we could never forget was that we could never forget” in Los Angeles after the war “Americans call it the Vietnam War, and the victorious Vietnamese call it the American War,” is the Captain, former aide to the General who was the head of the secret police. The Captain is still the General’s unofficial aide in Los Angeles. He is also a devoted communist spy. While the General makes and renews American political connections and plans a coup d'état from the back room of his liquor store the Captain reports all to his communist controller.

As the bastard son of a Vietnamese mother and French priest father, the Captain has been marginalized and shunned from birth. He is considered not pure at home and not occidental by Westerners. He has been educated in America and returned to Vietnam. Displaced by the war, he considers his talent to be “simply able to see any issue from both sides.” As if to emphasize the Captain’s bifurcation, his two “blood brothers” are Bon, who is a refugee in L.A. with him, and Man, who remained behind and remains and ardent communist.

This is an extremely well-written story that doesn’t shy from apportioning blame for the atrocities committed by all participants in Vietnam.
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LibraryThing member TooBusyReading
“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.”

The first sentences of this book promised a good story, and did not fail to deliver. The first person protagonist, known only as the captain, is a man divided, not Vietnamese, not European, with divided loyalties in a country divided.

Rescued with his American cohorts during the last dark days of the US withdrawal from Vietnam, that is only the beginning of the story. Twists and turns abound as the captain follows his calling to his native country, even though he is rejected there because of his European half.

“So it was that we soaped ourselves in sadness and we rinsed ourselves with hope, and for all that we believed almost every rumor we heard, almost all of us refused to believe that our nation was dead.”

This is not an easy book to read. The author apparently does not believe in using quotation marks for dialogue, and it takes a bit to get into the rhythm of his writing. The paragraphs are long and dense, and the writing is not condescendingly dumbed down, take it or leave it.

The descriptions are beautifully phrased, and belie the captain's seeming emotional detachment, his outside-looking-in perspective.

“It was time to stop and make a graceful exit, but the vodka that could not drain fast enough through the plugged-up sinkhole in the basement of my heart compelled me to swim on.”

“My heart would have paused at the boots, the heels, or the flat, smooth slice of her belly, naked in between miniskirt and bustier, but the combination of all three arrested my heart altogether and beat it with the vigor of a Los Angeles police squad. Pouring cognac over my heart freed it, but thus drenched it was easily flambeed by her torch song.”

“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.”

Despite the first sentences this novel is not so much a thriller/espionage novel as it is a look into the soul of a man torn in two. It wasn't a quick or easy book for me to read, but I am very glad I did read it.

I was given an advance copy of the book for review. The quotes may have changed in the published edition.
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LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
I would not have picked up Viet Thanh Nguyen's debut novel about an undercover Viet Cong operative working as an aide to a General when the Vietnam War ends, without it's inclusion in this year's Tournament of Books.

The narrator is writing his confession in an undisclosed location. He tells the story of how being Eurasian has led him to feel excluded from Vietnamese society, and later from American culture. He talks about his love for his two friends, and the toll being undercover has taken on him; being unable to be fully himself with anyone, including his Viet Cong handler, as he is simultaneously part of two different worlds. He talks about his life in Vietnam, and then his life in California among the Vietnamese refugees. He had gone to university in California, and so feels more acclimated to American life than his roommate, a friend who saw his wife and son killed in the chaos of the evacuation, and who is unable to make a life in this new place. But the narrator's facility with English and knowledge of the US just makes it clearer to him how much of an outsider he will always be.

I loved the parts of the novel having to do with the narrator's experiences as a refugee, and that of his fellow refugees. His inner conflict was fascinating. Nguyen has given his narrator a unique voice; that of someone whose English is better than many native speakers, yet who has not yet internalized the usual combinations of words. The narrator is a man who would have been happiest working as a college professor, reading books and talking philosophy, circumstances have decreed otherwise, making him a spy and a killer.

Vodka was one of the three things the Soviet Union made that were suitable for export, not counting political exiles; the other two were weapons and novels. Weapons I professionally admired, but vodka and novels I loved. A nineteenth-century Russian novel and vodka accompanied each other perfectly. Reading a novel while one sipped vodka legitimized the drink, while the drink made the novel seem much shorter than it truly was.

I was less interested in the machinations of the CIA in Indochina, or in watching various men talk, dream about and prepare for war. This is a novel largely about men and the violent acts they will commit with the excuse of fighting communism or American influence, but there is a heart underneath the tough, testosterone-fueled shells of these characters, and the novel says interesting things about integration and prejudice. I hope the sort of unconscious white paternalism shown here would be impossible today, but I suspect it still exists and it's just learned to keep a lower profile.
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LibraryThing member ajarn7086
This is not just another Vietnam War novel; on the surface it may look like one with the additional twist that the protagonist is a sleeper agent for North Vietnam hiding inside the Vietnamese refugee population in the USA. The reality and appeal of this novel is much more complex. The entire novel could be read with a focus on the innovative language use, from vocabulary to structure. This alone would be enough to please a reader jaded by overused vocabulary and prose in novels currently “hot.” But this book is more.

There is a substantial ghost story. Not that this is a work of fantasy; it is an acknowledgement that ghosts have a significant part in the belief system of Vietnamese. As an Occidental with a Vietnamese wife, I had a great deal of difficulty in dealing with the significance seriously; my failing to do so is somewhat described by the narrator (hereafter referred to as the Captain) as one of many failings of Occidentals who would understand Asians. The Captain has more problems than my mindset, though. He has killed a few people, some maybe innocent, others perhaps guilty. His victims return in unpredictable visits at sometimes embarrassing times and are always asking questions that cause the Captain to doubt himself.

There is a very realistic portrayal of interrogation techniques, mostly at the strategic level (lasting a long time) but even strategic interrogations have elements of tactical (short term) interrogations. Strange music played loudly, sleep deprivation, temporal confusion; all are elements discussed. Reading this after former experiences with interrogation, these sections were riveting for me. And accurate. The only other honest description of a strategic interrogation I have read was written by John Le Carre in some of his Smiley adventures. Those accurate descriptions were Eurocentric.

The big theme running through the novel is about the Captain’s struggle to establish a self-identity. He resents, throughout the book, being called a bastard. I could not identify with the depths of such resentment; it came up repeatedly in many of the subplot developments. The Captain is a result of a relationship between a French priest and an under-aged Vietnamese girl. Bullied in school, the Captain began to fight, literally, against being called a bastard. Arriving in the US on his mission, he fought to be called Eurasian rather than Amerasian, which many in the US would unthinkingly call him. Then there was the idea that he was a sleeper agent in the US working for the North Vietnamese communists while pretending to subscribe to the beliefs of the defeated, refugee military remnants. In addition to the emotional dualities he felt, there were the pragmatic dualities he had to live with in order to do his job. The Captain spent so much time trying to rationalize varied identities that he never had time to figure out what his end goal personality was.

There is a military story for the war veterans among us, especially toward the latter part of the book. Some of this does not ring true as realistic. A bunch of over the hill military types who had done little for years other than as domestic workers decide to get together, run around in the desert a bit to get into shape, then run to Thailand to buy some weapons so they could begin invading their homeland in a recovery of past days and glories. Talk about a condescending attitude!! Clue: The opposition was on guard for such things.

Culture clash, along with a search for self-identity, appear throughout the story. Rudyard Kipling is quoted as that author notes the impossibility of a reconciliation or a meeting between East and West. Two other excellent writers are noted; Joseph Buttinger and his several books on Vietnam and Francis Fitzgerald with her one controversial prize winner, Fire in the Lake. Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke is not mentioned. That book and this one could be a companion series on views of the war. They are both great, but in different ways.

As a frequent reader, I love language and the clever use of language; this book rates very high for me in terms of language, both vocabulary and structure. I had to resort to Kindle dictionary definitions for cordillera, villanelles, apsara, palimpsest, and chiaroscuro; all gave me pause. I probably need to get out more. And then there were the impossibly long sentences; one I counted was 360 words. Sprinkled liberally with commas and semicolons, the sentences were technically good. They usually happened when the Captain was entering a spell of reminiscence. And here the reader is invited to follow the path remembered by the Captain. If the reader has had any involvement with Vietnam, the reading of these passages will be slow as reader memories return. These memories can be (as they were for me) quite emotional. I provide one here as an example. It describes the stories Vietnamese refugees heard about the ultimate fate of some of their countrymen who did not do well in the USA.

"This was the way we learned of the clan turned into slave labor by a farmer in Modesto, and the naive girl who flew to Spokane to marry her GI sweetheart and was sold to a brothel, and the widower with nine children who went out into a Minnesotan winter and lay down in the snow on his back with mouth open until he was buried and frozen, and the ex-Ranger who bought a gun and dispatched his wife and two children before killing himself in Cleveland, and the regretful refugees on Guam who petitioned to go back to our homeland, never to be heard from again, and the spoiled girl seduced by heroin who disappeared into the Baltimore streets, and the politician’s wife demoted to cleaning bedpans in a nursing home who one day snapped, attacked her husband with a kitchen knife, then was committed to a mental ward, and the quartet of teenagers who arrived without families and fell in together in Queens, robbing two liquor stores and killing a clerk before being imprisoned for twenty years to life, and the devout Buddhist who spanked his young son and was arrested for child abuse in Houston, and the proprietor who accepted food stamps for chopsticks and was fined for breaking the law in San Jose, and the husband who slapped his wife and was jailed for domestic violence in Raleigh, and the men who had escaped but left wives behind in the chaos, and the women who had escaped but left husbands behind, and the children who had escaped without parents and grandparents, and the families missing one, two, three, or more children, and the half dozen who went to sleep in a crowded, freezing room in Terre Haute with a charcoal brazier for heat and never woke up, borne to permanent darkness on an invisible cloud of carbon monoxide."

And this is only one such sentence. There are several. The two reference points below are to account for the fact that the quote ran over two Kindle “pages.”

Nguyen, Viet Thanh. The Sympathizer: A Novel (Kindle Locations 1272-1278). Grove/Atlantic, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Nguyen, Viet Thanh. The Sympathizer: A Novel (Kindle Locations 1278-1283). Grove/Atlantic, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Therefore, take the time to read and experience the book. I do not believe it is a one weekend read.
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LibraryThing member alexrichman
An odd book, which switches from spy thriller to campus novel to film criticism then back again to spying. The espionage was what hooked me, but the Personal Journey was less compelling; my interest was already waning when the love interests suddenly reared their not-so-ugly heads. Our titular sympathizer Bon is a great creation, and you really do feel like you're living inside his head, but the ending was a bit too Bond for me. When it's good, this is really very good, but when it's bad it's, er, a bit boring.… (more)
LibraryThing member novelcommentary
The Sympathizer begins as a confession, being written in solitary confinement, as the Captain attempts to tell his story of being the basted son of a mother who was raped by a French priest, as a communist agent in the US , as a Sympathizer who sees both sides of every story. His story details his escape from the fall of Saigon, his readjusting to life in the US and his eventual return to Vietnam, a journey of self discovery with philosophical revelations. There are few names in the novel. The Captain's best friends are Man and Bon and others are called by their rank: General, crapulent Major, Commandant, etc. I was totally enthralled by the writing and the observations of Nguyen. Passages that were descriptive, sarcastic, thoughtful. Some examples below:

America, land of supermarkets and superhighways, of supersonic jets and Superman, of supercarriers and the Super Bowl! America, a country not content simply to give itself a name on its bloody birth, but one that insisted for the first time in history on a mysterious acronym, USA,

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.

This novel tells a very different Vietnam story than others have shown and points a critical eye at the United States, the French and the Vietnamese Generals. This first person account will contribute a new perspective to an American's view of the war. There are some insightful articles following the novel that add to the author's purpose. In one he states that "I want this book to provoke people to rethink their assumptions about this history, and also about the literature they’ve encountered before—to make them uncomfortable in a good way." He accomplishes this.
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LibraryThing member TimBazzett
After the hundreds of reviews already written, there's probably not much I can add. Suffice it to say that THE SYMPATHIZER deserves all the praise and honors it has received, including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It is a darkly satiric look at the Vietnam War and its aftermath, particularly the Vietnamese diaspora. But it is also deadly serious, in many ways an indictment of an America that ignored Eisenhower's dire warnings about an unchecked military-industrial complex. Nguyen's story spreads blame equally for the rape and destruction of Vietnam, a proving ground for arms and tactics during the Cold War between the US and the USSR. France and China are also culpable, of course. But he also blames the Vietnamese themselves. He takes to task too American film makers, particularly Coppola and his blockbuster, "Apocalypse Now," thinly disguised here as "the Auteur" and his propagandistic film, "The Hamlet," for which the unnamed narrator is hired as a technical advisor, and notes bitterly: "... this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors ..."

A complex novel, the first hundred pages or so are, despite its subject, often humorous, complete with a hilarious nod to Philip Roth's Alexander Portnoy. The latter part, not so much. Covert assassinations, jungle firefights, dismemberments, deformed babies in jars, and brutal scenes of rape and torture will cause you to wince. THE SYMPATHIZER is not a novel for the faint of heart. But it is a thoughtful and vitally important addition to the oeuvre of war literature. Very highly recommended. (four and a half stars)

- Tim Bazzett, author of the Cold War memoir, SOLDIER BOY: AT PLAY IN THE ASA
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LibraryThing member muddyboy
A very well written award winning book about a man who leaves Viet Nam when American forces leave at the conclusion of our involvement there. Over the course of the book we find that the main character is in sympathy with the Communist takeover. While he appears to totally assimilate into the American way of life when in reality he is spying on his new country. As time passes he goes back to his mother country and the Communist government feels he is tainted and must undergo a "reeducation" program to prove his loyalty to the government. This is a very intriguing novel written by a debut author which makes it even more exceptional.… (more)
LibraryThing member Writermala
This book had its moments. I wasn't sure if I loved it or was bored by it. "The sympathizer" who is also the narrator, is an aide of a South Vietnamese General, who flees to America on the last plane out; however he is in reality a Viet Cong mole. This makes for an interesting plot which thickens when he is a prisoner of the revolutionaries. The characters in the book are metaphors for the country and the whole book is an allegory. Given how deep it is, it is easy reading.… (more)
LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
Saigon has fallen. America is abandoning the South Vietnamese. Panic and pandemonium rage as they try to save themselves for they know that the Viet Cong will be brutal in their reign when they take over. With the suddenness of the evacuation, there are just not enough spaces on the transport planes to take all those who need to leave, and the mounting danger is apparent with the huge crowds gathering at the airport surging toward the planes they cannot board. The book examines and thoroughly exposes all sides, motivations and personalities of those involved in the Vietnam War.
A Captain in the service of South Vietnam and confidante to the General in charge, The Sympathizer, has drawn up a list of those to be on the last evacuation list, on the last military transport plane leaving Saigon. This is to be arranged by their CIA contact, Claude. The Captain remains unnamed throughout the book. He is a man with two distinct sides and two distinct backgrounds, a man who floats between two worlds never knowing within which world he belongs. He is the product of both an interracial relationship and a forbidden relationship. His mother and father never married. She was a maid and his father was a Catholic priest. The sympathizer was no longer a Catholic. He was an atheist, and his religion was Communism. He referred to himself as a bastard. He worked for the enemy of the army he pretended to support; he was a spy for the Viet Cong. He was the quintessential hypocrite, the typical person who was easily subverted; he was a person who was dissatisfied with his life and ashamed of his background. He was a person always searching for answers to unanswerable questions, a person who saw both sides of the issue but chose to support one ideology over another without fully understanding his choice, the reasons for it, or the consequences.
After the first attempts for his group to fly out of Vietnam were thwarted by enemy fire, his plane finally lifted off and took these last survivors of the past, into the sunset of their future. Although they hoped to return to fight another day, to recapture their country, that remained to be seen. Their war had ended in defeat, in ignominy for both the South Vietnamese and the United States. Neither side fully understood the other, rather each side sought to imprint their culture on its opposite. The Captain who is on the plane with the General, is expected to do his part in America, to keep his allies-the Viet Cong, advised of all the future plans of his “supposed comrades in arms” without getting caught. Betraying his friends and fellow South Vietnamese, he secretly sent information back to his handler, Man, via letters to his “aunt”. When necessary, he worked both sides of the aisle, committing acts of violence or turning a blind eye to the acts of others depending on his own need to protect himself and the cause. He was willing to sacrifice possibly innocent people to protect himself in his service to the communists. In this climate, the common belief was that the injustices being carried out upon the victims were equally employed by both sides, so they were inevitable. Excuses were created to justify their actions, and they performed their duty, no matter how heinous, even when unsure of its validity. If they didn’t do it, someone else would.
The Captain, the General and the others in his party were forced to rely on the charity of others, and thus humbled, were forced to take jobs providing them with no stature, surely not the stature they were used to when they served in the Military. Behind the scenes, the general was actively trying to organize a trained force to return to retake their country. He had convinced some in power in America to help him in this cause both financially and with very limited military might. He believed in America, its democracy and ideals, while the Captain believed in Ho Chi Minh and his teachings. As time passed, although the war was over for them, those who had served their country wanted to continue to serve, those in the armed forces wanted to continue to fight; they simply wanted to feel like men again. In America, they had discovered that they did not know how to be Americans. Their wives had become more independent, often voicing opinions and displeasure. The men do not want to be westernized. They wanted to maintain their eastern culture and ways. They often felt hopeless and humiliated.
The Captain felt responsible for the well-being of only two men, his comrades Man and Bon, who were devoted to the cause of the Viet Cong; the three of them were blood brothers from boyhood. As time passed, though, the sympathizer witnessed and participated in events that haunted him. They made him think about his own behavior and beliefs, but always, he returned to the ideals he had chosen, the ideals he had been taught by his communist friend, Man, the ideals of Marx and Ho Chi Minh. Although he seemed to carry out his orders without emotion, afterwards he often became ill and was disturbed by the ghosts of his victims who visited him in waking hours and dreams.
Throughout the book, many truths become apparent, but one stands out. With all ideologies, when those in power who have been accused of misdeeds are replaced, those who gain the power often become just as, or even more, corrupt and evil. The methods used by the enemy are considered heinous, but when they are actually used on The Sympathizer by his own side, the Viet Cong, he seems bewildered. He doesn’t understand why he is being mistreated so, why he is being punished. He had devoted himself to their cause and was now betrayed by those he had sacrificed his life for, those he had loyally revered and defended. His reeducation began to teach him that perhaps nothing was more important than independence and freedom. His had been taken away.
The Captain realized that he had betrayed others. He had straddled two worlds without fitting into either one. While he worked for the communists, he often sympathized with the plight of his enemies. He was captured and confined, basically for being infected by the Western world he had been sent to by Man. He was beginning to think that education might actually be the enemy of his comrades. Once one learned other ideas, one might believe one should be free to actually think and choose their own ideas, but communism demanded strict adherence and obedience to their set of rules. If one thought freely, one might see the flaws, see the injustice, see the one sided nature of the beliefs they were forced to follow. They might come to understand that rather than encompassing all and helping all, communism actually helped to perpetuate and protect the efforts of those on top, first and foremost, at the expense of the followers, which is true of most dictatorships.
All the while Man was sanctioning the torture of his friend, the captain, he insisted that he was saving him from those who were above him in power, those who had already judged the Captain guilty. He told him he was not truly a prisoner, although he was in an isolation cell to prevent him from contaminating anyone else with western ways. For a year he was forced to write and rewrite his confessions. The commandant did not believe his confessions were authentic and would have summarily disposed of him, were it not for Man who was the commissar. His confessions were meant to cleanse him, perhaps to brainwash him, but did they cleanse him or confuse him further? The confessions were, after all, forced upon him. He began to think that what he had chosen to do was not as just a cause as he had once thought. He began to think it was simply a means to pass the mantle of power to someone else to use. It seemed that someone was always there waiting to assume the authority to rule the people, rather than to share the power to help the people. It was, ultimately, once again used to control them.
As the book moves back and forth in time, the things that shaped the Captain, that turned him into a communist, are revealed. His views of his country and countrymen are exposed. He describes a culture in which the poverty had given birth to a people who would do anything necessary to survive. They would lie, cheat, steal, push, shove, and bully those weaker in order to gain the advantage, an advantage which provided them with little. They were poorly educated and unable to make thoughtful decisions. They had been under the rule of so many governments they had lost the ability to be independent. They blamed others for their plight, never themselves. To them, America was like a monster devouring everything in its path. The book exposes the flaws of the war and those involved. Each side misinterpreted the other, used the other, because they never took the time to understand each other or their cultures. The Americans looked down upon the Vietnamese and often made promises they could not fulfill. They each sought to do the impossible, to remake the other in their own image and to use each other for their own advantage.
The prose was far and above that in most modern day books. Each sentence was well crafted with metaphors and images that were creative and filled with insights into the characters and their culture. Every sentence swept the reader away into the life and mind of The Sympathizer and those with whom he interacted.
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LibraryThing member Unreachableshelf
Our narrator begins "I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces." He is also, in many ways, a man of two identities. Half Vietnamese and half French, he accompanies a South Vietnamese general to America after the fall of Saigon and serves as a double agent for the communists. There he is forced to contemplate and to do terrible things in order to maintain his cover. His talent, as he tells, is for seeing everything from both sides. Yet while he can see the world from any perspective, there is no world that completely accepts him. This is a gripping spy tale and a thought provoking and eloquently told story about identity, friendship, betrayal, and belief.… (more)
LibraryThing member joellegc
Beautifully written. Lyrical. A bit long on musing for my tastes, but very enjoyable.
LibraryThing member bookclub4evr
Quality of Writing: 8.00
Glad you read it?: 9.14
LibraryThing member bodachliath
This feels like an important book, and one that resists a trite pithy summary. The unnamed narrator spends most of the book working for a South Vietnamese general in exile and the Americans, while reporting clandestinely as a Viet Cong agent. This immediately allows an unusual perspective on the Vietnam war and its immediate aftermath, in other words the Vietnamese one, but one that allows space and sympathy for both sides in the conflict. Some parts of the book are very funny, in the same sort of way as Catch-22, and the Americans offer easy satirical targets (particularly the thinly veiled section inspired by Coppola and Apocalypse Now), but the later parts of the book are deadly serious, deeply moving and full of intriguing political and historical ideas. For all of its unpalatable subject matter, this feels like a work of serious literature, and I'm not sure I can unpick my feelings about it immediately after reading the final section.… (more)
LibraryThing member konastories
Joy's review: the narrator is Vietnamese and who spies for the Communists while working for a South Vietnamese general. One best friend is a communist, the other strongly part of the opposition. No one and no side comes off well in this well written and very sardonic book. Some great insights into America and American culture and some difficult reading about the cruelty humans subject each other to. Very worthwhile to read a Vietnamese war narrative from a Vietnamese point of view.… (more)
LibraryThing member kerns222
Brilliant? You said it.
Mystery? Not much. You wonder who'll survive but read slowly, happily stuck in the moment, in the fat paragraphs that you know you could never write, you know no one could ever write, but there they are.
International intrigue? Yes, in the confessional style of a thirty-something spy commenting on life, liberty, and his pursuit of Mrs. Mori. Also, on torture, country music, American misadventures, and deep cleavage, the great western invention. Oops, I forgot to mention--humiliation and rage, the real story in the book.
Death and destruction? Of course, but what else are victory, movies and defeat about? Much of it happens in Orange County--with the destruction of Vietnam exiles’ minds. Especially men’s.
Humorous? A non-stop funny bone beating you to death.
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LibraryThing member brangwinn
I know from the first sentence that this will not be like other books I’ve read. The narrator lets the reader know that he is a spook, a spy for both sides in the Vietnam conflict. Reading his story as he leaves Vietnam in the fall of Saigon to go to the US with the South Vietnamese general for whom he is an aide to his return to Vietnam as a Communist, he made it clear his sentiments were with the Communists. Gut wrenching in the honesty of his actions, he struggles with the murders he committed in America under the guise of helping the South Vietnamese cause, knowing that they were innocent. This was not an easy Pulitzer Prize winner to read, because of its starkness in dealing with actions and politics.… (more)
LibraryThing member msf59
“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.”

This is how the novel kicks off, as we are introduced to the main character: a Vietnamese Army Captain, fighting for the south, with his loyalties to the communist north. After the fall of Saigon, in 1975, he relocates to California, with his general's staff and continues there as a sleeper agent.
The writing here is strong and ambitious. Nguyen is a smart and crafty author. It is a story about friendship, loyalty and the horrors of war and it's aftermath. Even if you may not agree with it winning a Pulitzer, you can clearly see why it was considered. Nguyen is an author to watch.
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LibraryThing member BDartnall
Beautifully written- wow, first novel?, compelling read of a South Vietnamese captain, half French -half Vietnamese who is really a sleeper agent for the communists. While the narrator tells us his story by conveying his "confession" to his captors, "my dear Commandant", this frame falls away quickly in each section of the captain's journey: his intense and heartbreaking departure from Saigon with his boss, a pompous S Vietnamese general, his family, and so few others in April 1975; his arrival in Los Angeles to assimilate with the Vietnamese expatriate community, living with his best friend Bon (shattered forever by the death of his wife/child while escaping); his bizarre but believable (only Hollywood!) role as an "advisor" on an extravagant, Vietnam war film conceived by the "Auteur", certainly a thinly veiled comparison to Apocalypse Now. Yet Nguyen through the narrator's voice captures so perfectly what the American Hollywood "machine" does for America, as well as audiences worldwide: "The longer I worked on the Movie, the more I was convinced that I was not only a technical consultant on an artistic project, but an infiltrator into a work of propaganda. A man such as the Auteur would have denied it, seeing Movie purely as Art, but who was fooling whom? 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" (166). The narrator's observations about the mess that was the Vietnam wars, the status of the immigrant in America, the curse of seeing everything from both sides, especially the pro-American view even as he secretly embraced his communist philosophy & training, the sad childhood he endured with a loving impoverished mother, and a French priest father who will never acknowledge him or his mother - all are expertly woven into the ongoing drama of his life. The last section details his return to the now communist controlled Laos via Thailand with a small band of Vietnamese Republic loyalists, intent on helping re-ignite the south Vietnamese resistance to the North Vietnamese communist government. This was the most gruesome, and the last chapters detailing -now we are back at his beginning!- how he is kept in solitary confinement and "re-educated" by a camp commandant and the mysterious "Commissar". This was tough going, much like the last section of Orwell's 1984, with the plot twist of the Commissar bringing the captain full circle. Difficult ending but amazing in its narrative scope and insight. Definitely graphic, explicit and not for the faint of heart!… (more)
LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
This book has received terrific plaudits from critics all around the world, and won last year’s Pulitzer Prize. It is certainly a very clever novel, containing an almost Dickensian mix of moments of great hilarity counterbalanced by others of tragedy. Somehow, though, it just didn’t work for me.

The basic premise is certainly appealing. The protagonist, having worked as senior aide to the General of the South Vietnamese secret police, escapes from Saigon in April 1975 on one of the final American military planes to depart before the occupation of the city by the North Vietnamese Army. He then recounts how he adapts to life in California, though he remains a sleeper agent for the next forty years. Viet Thanh Nguyen uses this context to make some satirical observations about life in America and the American perspective of history.

Unfortunately, I felt that the novel was simply far too long and the execution just too clumsy. That was a pity because the idea was a good one.
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Advance Reading Copy of this Pulitzer Prize winning debut novel.
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