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."It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong. The Sympathizer is the story of this captain: a man brought up by an absent French father and a poor Vietnamese mother, a man who went to university in America, but returned to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause. A gripping spy novel, an astute exploration of extreme politics, and a moving love story, The Sympathizer explores a life between two worlds and examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today"--Amazon.com.
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.
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.
He does serve up a healthy dose of commentary on Americans, a portion of which I excerpt below, and which I found valid and fair. I loved how unapologetic and honest he is in his characterization of not only Americans, but of Vietnamese as well. It’s heartbreaking that following a revolution of liberation “for the people”, the result is further oppression, just as it had been in Russia (and which Vasily Grossman so aptly pointed out). As one of Nguyen’s characters puts it, “Now that we are the powerful, we don’t need the French or the Americans to fuck us over. We can fuck ourselves just fine.”
There are several powerful scenes in the book, the most memorable of which for me were the harrowing escape from Saigon, and then later serving as a consultant during the making of an American action movie set in Vietnam. It’s interesting to me that of the three blood brothers in the story, one is a Communist, another is a Republican, and the third, the narrator, is a communist spy (a sympathizer) in the south. It reflects that deep divisions in the country, despite all involved wanting liberation from French occupation. A further split nature is in the narrator’s half-Viet, half-caucasian parentage, and as the novel plays out, yet another split takes place.
It’s not necessary to enjoy or understand the book, but I was happy to have seen the Ken Burns PBS documentary on the Vietnam War, which helped with some of Nguyen’s reference, as well as overall context.
“Although every country thought itself superior in its own way, was there ever a country that coined so many ‘super’ terms from the federal bank if its narcissism, was not only superconfident but also truly super-powerful, that would not be satisfied until it locked every nation of the world into a full nelson and made it cry Uncle Sam?”
This one on Hollywood movies becoming the view of what happened in Vietnam:
“His arrogance marked something new in the world, for this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created (with all due respect to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis, who never achieved global domination).”
“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.”
“Americans on the average do not trust intellectuals, but they are cowed by power and stunned by celebrity.”
“…and I thought with regret about all the things I would miss about America: the TV dinner; air-conditioning; a well-regulated traffic system that people actually followed; a relatively low rate of death by gunfire, at least compared with our homeland; the modernist novel; freedom of speech, which, if not as absolute as Americans like to believe, was still greater in degree than in our homeland; sexual liberation; and, perhaps most of all, that omnipresent American narcotic, optimism, the unending flow of which poured through the American mind continuously, whitewashing the graffiti of despair, rage, hatred, and nihilism scrawled there nightly by the black hoodlums of the unconscious.”
“Refugees such as ourselves could never dare question the Disneyland ideology followed by most Americans, that theirs was the happiest place on earth.”
“As the Congressman rose, I calmed the tremor in my gut. 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.”
“For the first time in my life I knew what it was to be struck by wonder. Even falling in love was not like that feeling, and I knew that this was how my father must have looked at me. He had created me, and I had created Duc. It was nature, the universe, God, flowing through us. That was when I fell in love with my son, when I understood how insignificant I was, and how marvelous he was, and how one day he’d feel the exact same thing.”
“…her retinas burned with the images of all the castrati dreamed up by Hollywood to steal the place of real Asian men. Here I speak of those cartoons named Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan, Number One Son, Hop Sing - Hop Sing! – and the bucktoothed, bespectacled Jap not so much played as mocked by Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The performance was so insulting it even deflated my fetish for Audrey Hepburn, understanding as I did her implicit endorsement of such loathsomeness.”
On revolution, so sad but true, played out in countless examples:
“Hadn’t the French and 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. We, too, could abuse grand ideals! Having liberated ourselves in the name of independence and freedom – I was so tired of saying these words! – we then deprived our defeated brethren of the same.”
“She had had boyfriends, plural, and when a woman discussed past boyfriends, she was informing you that she was evaluating you in comparison with defective and effective partners past.”
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.
The story’s narrator is not named, but he works for the victorious forces of Ho Chi Minh, spying on the tatters of the army of the Republic of Viet Nam. Author Viet Thanh Nguyen’s book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016, and its theme, plot, and style give ample reason. He treats American cultural imperialism, Vietnamese cunning and venality on both sides, and the helplessness of individuals in the face of powerful historical forces, with equal ease, wisdom, and a kind of fatalistic black humor.
This is a highly engaging piece. Nguyen approaches each idea and episode with an everyman’s pluck and sarcasm. His hero dabbles in some pretty nefarious activities, but when he’s forced into schemes which result in murder, the victims haunt him throughout the rest of the book. In fact, when he returns to his homeland, a spy embedded in an ill-fated recon mission with a motley group of zealots, his capture by the Communists results in imprisonment instead of the favorable treatment he would be justified in expecting.
The book has a light framework into which it fits: in his solitary confinement, he is made to write his confession, and this book is it. He seeks to please the commandant and commissar in charge of the prison, to convince them he is true to the revolutionary cause. But his style displeases them; his decadent Western influences betray him; his consulting work on a major motion picture failed to please anyone, even when he tried to help show Vietnamese in a favorable light.
One element of this story weighs on the personal story of our narrator. He is one of three men who swore a blood oath during their early teens. One of the others fights for the capitalist side, and the other leads Communist forces trying to rebuild the south. The protagonist leads a double life: his heart is that of a revolutionary Communist, but by all outward appearances, he’s a Southern capitalist soldier all the way. In the imprisonment which covers the end of the book, the commissar ultimately brainwashes him and splinters his personality in two.
So at story’s end, he is truly riven in two, and to get on with the remainder of his life he must first find a way to heal his mind and heart. Mr. Nguyen shows stunning cleverness and aplomb with this conceit. His main character loves both sides of View Nam; he tries to reconcile the split that has reached even his own person. The love of his homeland flavors every sentence and thought here, and the pain in the face of the staggering human cost shows through in unutterable sadness. The author sings a long, loving ballad in the key of the blues for Viet Nam, and places within his protagonist all its elements: grief at the human loss, a knowing and sarcastic nudge for the human failings, and ultimately a wisp of hope. With this debut piece, Mr. Nguyen has run the table: historical sweep, thrills and skullduggery, a sympathetic, Everyman-type hero, and assured treatment of major themes. Take this up, by all means!
That said, the movie section largely went over my head (as I was reading it, I knew I had to have been missing something). In the Acknowledgements, Nguyen says "the inspiration for the Movie can hardly be a secret". Well, it was for me. I have never seen Apocalypse Now (or Platoon, which he also mentions). I don't like war movies, and really I don't much like movies in general. I prefer....books! Unsurprisingly, this book does not want to make me watch Apocalypse Now.
I wrote to him just before I started reading to ask him to confirm the published story about his support for an academic and cultural boycott of my country. He wrote back very politely and graciously to confirm.
I might have gone into this a little disappointed. That said it's an oddly disjointed book with some genuinely inelegant phrasing. There's a completely out of place homage to Portnoy's Complaint where our hero takes his pleasure from a squid and a brace of effectively described political assassinations. The last 20% of the book goes completely doolally with an extended torture and Communist re-education scenario.
None of it comes together very well. None of the women are written with anything but contempt - the older no-strings nympho, the General's hag wife, the manic dream pixie daughter (whom our narrator gleefully buggers after his first homicide) and the rape victim. It's all fairly retrograde.
Maybe I'm just bitter.
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.
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.
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.
Glad you read it?: 9.14
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.
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
The mole (never named) was educated in the United States before returning to Vietnam and signing on as a Viet Cong spy. He accompanies the general to the United States after the fall of Saigon and continues his espionage work there. He ultimately returns to Vietnam in an ill-fated attempt to establish a counter-insurgency on behalf of the general.
I found the novel to be highly educational, as I’d never read such an account of the Vietnam War from the viewpoint of the Vietnamese. The refugee experience was largely unknown to me. While the final 50-100 pages are among the most powerful, containing acts of psychological and physical torture, they are presented in an almost stream of consciousness narrative which can become tiresome to wade through.
Certainly a worthy novel, however I can imagine that many might not enjoy it.
great view of the immigrant experience and the complexities of the Vietnam war