The Sympathizer: A Novel

by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Hardcover, 2016

Call number




Grove Press (2016), Edition: 1, 384 pages


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.
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The more powerful a country is, the more disposed its people will be to see it as the lead actor in the sometimes farcical, often tragic pageant of history. So it is that we, citizens of a superpower, have viewed the Vietnam War as a solely American drama in which the febrile land of tigers and
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elephants was mere backdrop and the Vietnamese mere extras.
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Le sympathisant
Très beau roman qui raconte le parcours d’un agent secret Viêt-Cong infiltré côté américain pendant la guerre du Vietnam. L’action débute au moment de l’évacuation des troupes américaines et des Vietnamiens collaborateurs.

Library's review

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
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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."
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User reviews

LibraryThing member labfs39
″They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.″ Marx spoke of the oppressed class that was not politically conscious enough to see itself as a class, but was anything ever more true of the dead…?

Much has been written about the Vietnam War, but the vast majority of the voices
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heard in America are American. Nguyen′s novel is an attempt to give another perspective, yet that perspective is of someone who came to the states as a child and lost no family in the war. So although his name is Vietnamese, his approach is academic, not biographical.

The entire novel′s tension rests on the dichotomies of a character who is half-French and half-Vietnamese, a Viet Cong soldier in a ARVN uniform, American-educated but Vietnamese-born, trained by the CIA to interrogate the very revolutionaries he is trying to save.

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.

Thus begins the novel and the protagonist′s confession. He is in an isolation cell writing for an unknown commandant—not an auspicious beginning. His story begins with the fall of Saigon and his escape with his commanding officer, a general in the South Vietnamese secret police. Although he has been serving the general for years and is a trusted aide, he is actually a mole for the North Vietnamese communist army. His handler orders him to leave the country with the general and continue reporting on the general′s activities, and any attempts to rekindle the war, from America. The plot bogs down a bit in the middle, but picks up again for an intense, page-turning ending.

Nguyen′s writing is clever and darkly humorous. I often stopped and reread a sentence simply for the pleasure of the construction. The book has elements of metafiction: a self-conscious novel that is written as a confession by a narrator whose life is a lie. The war is being recast as a movie starring American heroes and nameless, unspeaking Vietnamese extras, on the one hand, and as a communist victory for the people by political commissars in the reeducation camps, on the other. Readers of [Invisible Man] and [The Quiet American] will find echoes throughout, as will watchers of Apocalypse Now. Nguyen tackles issues of identity, race, representation, and both individual and societal culpability head on, sparing no one—American, South Vietnamese, or communist—from his glare.
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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
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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 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
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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 gbill
Powerful. Much is made of this being a new voice or perspective, a book for Vietnamese-Americans as explosive as the writings of Ellison, Baldwin, Morrison, and others were for African-Americans, and while that’s true and a big part of what makes the book special, Nugyen’s writing is strong
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regardless, with lyrical passages and insights into human nature.

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.

On America:
“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.”

On caucasians:
“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.”

On fatherhood:
“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.”

On racism:
“…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.”

On women:
“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.”
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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
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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 Dreesie
This novel is very smart, and very dense, and it has a lot to say about colonization, American culture, the French, Vietnam and the Vietnamese, and war. Also immigration and how clueless Americans are about the workers in their midst--shop owners, delivery drivers, neighbors sharing a common wall.
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They may have been colonels, successful businessmen, or otherwise very successful people in their homelands, now trying to start over as adults and as older adults.

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.
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LibraryThing member Clara53
Brilliant writing... This is one of the best novels by a contemporary writer that I have ever read. In fact, if Viet Thanh Nguyen writes another novel, I bet it will be hard to match this one - so masterly it is. But I will definitely read anything he writes. This book almost mesmerized me -
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excellent, vivid, intelligent writing, with stinging frankness bordering on cynicism of the right kind. A hugely talented writer. (Also, it reminded me somewhat of Aravind Adiga's "The White Tiger", another stunning novel).
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LibraryThing member judithrs
The Sympathizer. Viet Thanh Nguyen. 2015. This is a remarkable book. The writing is incredibly good. Told in first person this novel is about the life of a young Vietnamese man who was a spy for the North Vietnam Viet Cong. He lived in South Vietnam and in the United States. It is a fascinating
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story that opens with the fall of South Vietnam and the horrors of those who were left behind. The United States doesn’t look good. Then the setting moves to California where so many “boat people” ended up, and it describes their difficulties in acclimating to the United Stated, It moves back to Vietnam where the main character is captured by the Viet Cong and tortured. Throughout background on the history of Vietnam under the French and the entire war is given. It is a very different view of the war and of the people of Vietnam. The prose is beautiful at times but the torture scenes are brutal and vivid.
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LibraryThing member LukeS
The Sympathizer forces our sympathies in the first-person narrator’s direction. His exposition of a spy’s secret and challenging life endears him to us; it’s honest, funny, even charming. Set in the years following America’s pullout of Viet Nam, Sympathizer presents us with the narrative of
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one man’s navigation of the treachery, prejudice, and continued illusion of those who would dream of re-establishing a capitalist regime in the South.

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!
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LibraryThing member asxz
I didn't have a great experience with this book and it's hard for me to tell whether it's the book's fault or whether the interaction I had with the author tainted it for me.

I wrote to him just before I started reading to ask him to confirm the published story about his support for an academic and
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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.
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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
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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.
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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
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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.
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LibraryThing member bblum
A writer's writer with lots of word play, humorous analogies. As a reader I sometimes became more focused on the word development and play rather than the content. Why don't the principle characters have names. More often than not women have names but men have humorous monikers like the corpulent
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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
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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 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
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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 dbsovereign
This is a well-written book that draws us into the mind someone who sees both sides of the coin called war...[in progress] "...I can only testify that he was sincere man who believed in everything he said, even if it was a lie, which makes him no different from most." "It is always better to admire
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the best among our foes than the worst among our friends."
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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
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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.
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LibraryThing member bookclub4evr
Quality of Writing: 8.00
Glad you read it?: 9.14
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
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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 lindaspangler
parts of this book were brilliant, so will give 5 stars. I loved the first 3/4ths. Could stop at last 1/4
great view of the immigrant experience and the complexities of the Vietnam war
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member joellegc
Beautifully written. Lyrical. A bit long on musing for my tastes, but very enjoyable.
LibraryThing member jmoncton
We like to talk about conflicts in simple language - the good guys vs. the bad guys, winners vs. losers, underdogs vs. favorites. But the problem with War is that the lines are never that solid. One side might start out as the underdog good guys, but over time, become the winners who torture and
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kill. The Sympathizer is also not a straightforward story. It comes across as a satire, with humorous language and gentle pokes at stereotypes, but underneath is a powerful story about the Viet Nam War, and the devastating role that the US, French, and Vietnamese played in destroying a land and people.

I started this book loving the writing, the clever use of language and the subtle laugh-out-loud jabs at society, but I finished it knowing I just read a masterpiece about the nature of war and the devastation of Viet Nam. Absolutely loved this book.
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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
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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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Dublin Literary Award (Shortlist — 2017)
Pulitzer Prize (Winner — Fiction — 2016)
Edgar Award (Nominee — First Novel — 2016)
LA Times Book Prize (Finalist — Mystery/Thriller — 2015)


0802124941 / 9780802124944
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