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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


10 thoughts on “The Sympathizer

  1. says:

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


  2. says:

    The Darkness of DemocracyWhen Donald Trump blasts Make America Great Again it may not be obvious that 'again' has a very specific historical reference the fall of Saigon on April 30 1975 the day the United States lost its first war This event opens The Sympathizer The Donald cannot mention Vietnam; it is still too painful and embarrassing a topic in American politics even after than 40 years There was no attack on a US ship in the Tonkin Gulf there were no dominoes waiting to fall there were no oppressed freedom loving people to defend These were fabrications The Vietnam War in the US has the same emotional significance as the First World War to Germany during the Weimar Republic It is a reminder of not just defeat and government deceit but of purported betrayal by one's fellow countrymen hippies liberals draft dodgers inconstant politicians The fact that Trump arranged to have himself exempted from being drafted into the Vietnam War through euivalent fabrication makes him even emotionally dedicated to ensuring his own past disappears into that period when America believed itself not just courageous and honest but competent and above all exceptional among nations His recent attack on former Vietnamese prisoner of war John McCain as a 'loser' was not so much personal as a metaphysical rejection of Trump's as well as the country's own historyThis novel is acutely prescient not only about the archetypal AmericanTrumpian neurosis which it satirises so mercilessly but also about the political effects of that neurosis The conflict in Vietnam has become an historical metaphor for what is happening in American politics as I write this review The route from Weimar to National Socialism in the Germany of the 1930's as many have already noted has much the same scenery as the rise of Trump The similarity is not congenial to many Americans Nguyen's staging of the problem of America in Vietnam is therefore brilliant That he doesn't provide a happy dénouement is simply prudence not lack of imagination Many others who have studied the problem reach a similar impasseFor example in 1943 two weeks before her death the young philosopher Simone Weil wrote a short essay 'On the Abolition of All Political Parties' In it she distinguishes the meaning and practice of political parties in continental Europe and the Anglo Saxon world of America and Britain Both types involve the passionate espousal of a point of view on the shape and content of the general good Weil likes neither type the British because although it dissipates passions the result is compromise which everyone can accept but no one really wants The continental because it enflames passions to the point where Jacobin ferocity puts one party in power and all the others in jail Frustration with the former naturally leads to the latterThe slide from reason to controllable passion to Gnostic dictatorship in which each party accuses the other not only of error but of the vile civil evil of treason is Weil implies inevitable This she foresees is the real threat of and to democracy the corruption of the souls and consciences of those who participate in party politics It is difficult not to perceive in the recently held Republican National Convention precisely this slide from rational perception of one's personal interests to the ultimate demonisation of the other side as perverts traitors and liars Hillary for Prison Hillary the Traitor of BenghaziThe Sympathizer is in large part about Weil's inevitable slide into the abyss of party politics The locus is not Cleveland although much of the book takes place in America and the protagonist is not American but significantly EuropeanAsian Nevertheless the not so hidden force of the narrative is American culture and American military and political power in the character of the mysterious Claude One clue to the metaphorical intent of the book is that Claude and his intellectual avatar Hedd is apparently the only proper name in the book The other characters are either roles the Captain the General the Auteur the Parisian aunt the crapulent major or veiled descriptors in languages other than English Man Bon Sofia Mori What the named character of Claude promotes is simply the creation and the continuing passionate hatred and conflict between the two historical factions of Vietnamese before during and after the war He plots and meddles and tortures and encourages strife endlessly not for any obvious ideology or advantage but just because he can Claude is America and what America does not just to others but to itself Not until halfway through the book despite several hints does it become apparent that it is actually about representative democracy not Vietnam Not to own the means of production can lead to premature death but not to own the means of representation is also a kind of death muses the spy protagonist who is having a rather different kind of political awakening than he anticipated during his life in the West The real uestion is how anyone can be politically represented Neither liberal democracy nor the dictatorship of the proletariat makes a satisfactory solution to the problem All politics fail from time to time Perhaps not inevitably as Weil feared but certainly when it comes under control by the Claudes of the worldDonald Trump is the potentially fatal flaw in American representative democracy Clearly Nguyen knew nothing of Trump's prospective rise to political fame as he wrote But he didn't need to Trump is a type the dark side of America that lurks constantly in wait to mug the entire country and as much of the rest of the world that is within reach It is this dark side which is so obvious to non Americans especially non European non Americans And it is this side which Nguyen describes with such horrible accuracy A timely reminder therefore of the real danger we face


  3. says:

    Another Update 2nd update I've been reading through my Kindle book again the last few days of this book looking over my notes taking new ones Our local book club is meeting to talk about The Sympathizer 25 of members from around the Bay Area are attendingwith 25 others on the waitlist For people who live in our area this is an important topic Americans and VietnameseAmericans live closely together here The Vietnamese culture thrives in our city Right after I read this book the first time over a year ago before Viet won the Pulitzer Prize I chatted with hima few times actually He lived here in San Jose for a period of his life and still has relatives in San Jose What stands out for me this second time especially the parts in Los Angles when things looked so awful to me in those grimy apartments yet I couldn't help but laugh at some of the descriptions was that Viet didn't write this book to point any fingers He never 'blames' anyone but we become aware of the conflicts living in the minds of the Vietnamese 'just being here' after the war in Vietnam And nobody gave us that experience clearly than he has in any book I had read before Looking forward to what 24 other people have to say Update exciting news This book just won the Pulitzer Prize for this year VERY EXCITING VERY CoolThe year is 1975 at the start As communist tanks are about to roll into Saigona General of the Southern Vietnamese army is saying good bye to community workers and friends from the Villa they liveThe General and his and compatriots leave to start a new life in Los Angeles Calif The Captain 'secretly' reports to a communist allied higher up Viet Cong about their group Both secrecy and hierarchy were key to revolution which was why there was always another committee higher up The author's story gives voice depth anguish and understanding of what its like to be Vietnamese in America after the war The narrator The grizzled captain brings us into his head so that in time we too feel as if we have one foot in American and one foot in VietnamAh the Amerasian forever caught between worlds and never knowing where he belongs Imagine if you did not suffer from the confusion you must constantly experience feeling the constant tugof war inside you and over you between Orient and Occident 'East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet' as Kipling so accurately diagnosed There are enchanting growth experiences for our 'grizzled captain' with woman I especially loved how his eyes opened when he was falling in love with Lana A modern thinking Vietnamese woman She believed in gun control birth control liberation for homosexuals and civil rights for all; she believed in Ghandi Martin Luthur King Jr and Thich Nhat Hanh; she believed in nonviolence and world peace and yoga Most of all this woman expressed her opinions whereas most Vietnamese woman kept their opinions to themselves until they were married whereon they never kept their opinions to themselves she was not hesitant to say what she thought This is a remarkable first novel Its 'RICH LIVELY' Packed filled with stories thrilling thriller funny fierce Its a novel which commands our compassion and respect for Vietnamese AmericansI've 'shifted' in 'soul' since reading this book It gives me an entire new view of the ending of the Vietnam War Bringing Vietnam and America together has been taking shape in front of my eyes for years but I hadn't examined the courage suffering heroism and collaboration until now My emotional heart is permanently tattooed with love for the Vietnamese Americans I share a city with a large population of Vietnamese Americans I live in San Jose California We have Vietnamese residents than any other city outside of Vietnam Over 10% of our population is comprised with Vietnamese American residents Our city has Vietnamese language radio shows TV shows literature community strip malls Vietnam Town The San Jose City Council designated Vietnam Town as Little Saigon Most Vietnamese prefer the name Vietnam Town We've wonderful services run by the Vietnamese nail salons acupuncture clothing furniture jewelry accounting travel medical and wonderful restaurantsPho soup etc This is a powerful book Hard to believe it has not been written until now Wonderful engaging storytelling by Viet Thanh NguyenThank you Grove Atlantic and Netgalley Powerful Story


  4. says:

    This is without a doubt an important story to tell thousands of refugees wailed as if attending a funeral the burial of their nation dead too soon as so many were at a tender twenty one years of age The writing is as good as I found in The Refugees but I wasn't immediately drawn in and had a difficult time trying to understand what was happening during the evacuation but I'm guessing that it reflects the reality of what it must have been like Our narrator the Captain a double agent introduces the reader to his dual allegiance when he says I am simply able to see any issue from both sides I flatter myself that this is a talent I was reminded of the mixed feelings that people had about this war I was very moved by some of the scenes The old woman and others angry and grieving throwing their shoes Also heartbreaking was how the Captain's friend Bon loses his wife and child In addition to the chaos of the evacuation scene the gut wrenching torture scenes towards the end stands out in my mind as wellThe essay and an interview at the end of the book were also enlightening and so very relevant for the issues at hand today and gave me a better understanding of the novel In the essay the author says The tendency to separate war stories from immigrant stories means that most Americans don't understand how many of the immigrants and refugees in the United States have fled from wars many of which this country has had a hand in But he doesn't put the full blame there In the interview he says The Vietnamese are at least partially responsible for what they did to themselves I didn't want to put the blame suarely on the Americans or the French although that blame is there I wanted this to be ver specifically a moment of Vietnamese on Vietnamese confrontation and responsibility because again this is in part how we claim our subjectivity we aren't just victims but victimizers as well This is a part of our history that we all find very hard to confront These comments give the novel some perspective and I wish I had read them first The wonderful writing I found in The Refugees prompted me to read this book If that wasn't reason enough this was a buddy read with two of my very good Goodreads friends Diane and Esil However I have very mixed feelings about the book There were too few moments when I felt an emotional connection to the Captain and at times it was a struggle to continue reading I wish I could articulate it in a better way but there you have it 3 stars and 35 stars after reading the essay and interview but these were not the novel so it remains 3 stars It won the Pulitzer Prize and there are so many others who have rated it 5 stars but it just didn't get to me as much as The Refugees which I rated 5 stars Thanks Diane and Esil Let's do this again sometime


  5. says:

    Pulitzer Prize winner and I don't always agree and such is the case here A very worthy book a book with so many truisms such as this one booted hard by the irony of how revolution fought for independence and freedom could make those things worth less than nothing The tone is ironic often satirical but it gets to be too much wearing on me as I was reading Almost became a chore to shift through some of this to get to the parts that meant something to me I little remember the Vietnam War was very young but do remember the scenes on TV and the protests all over the United States So in this way the book did succeed by showing me many of the things I didn't know There are brilliant phrases insights but in between were things I just wasn't interested in that in a way felt like it was taking away from the story Though in retrospect I can see where it all ties together what it means but while reading it just felt frustrating There is one event I found shocking interesting comes near the end of the book but again I felt this was overplayed went on too long So a very mixed read for me intellectually I can see why it won but emotionally I wasn't sold The absurdities of war and we keep going round and round never learning a thing or so it seemsBuddy read with Angela and Esil which definitely made this easier to bear would probably never had finished if it hadn't been for them


  6. says:

    Forty years ago this month after a long deadly release of flatulence from American politicians the United States evacuated its personnel from Saigon in an operation appropriately code named Freuent Wind Whether you were alive then or not the images of those panicked Vietnamese crushing the US Embassy are tattooed on our collective consciousnessIn the opening ­pages of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s extraordinary first novel “The Sympathizer” that terror feels so real that you’ll mistake your beating heart for helicopter blades thumping the air Nguyen brings us right inside the barbed wire encircled home of a South Vietnamese general just waking from his faith in American resilience Thrashing all around him officers and cronies are bargaining for survival Who will get out? Who will To read the rest of this review go to The Washington Posthttpwwwwashingtonpostcomenterta


  7. says:

    So clever and witty but also gripping


  8. says:

    My mother was native my father was foreign and strangers and acuaintances had enjoyed reminding me of this ever since my childhood spitting on me and calling me bastard although sometimes for variety they called me bastard before they spit on meI didn't realize how much I've gotten used to not needing to pay attention to the books I read Reading this one was as much a chore as it was a joy Words sentences entire paragraphs that reuired no demanded I pay heed Here was inexplicably lovely prose about ugly subject matter prostitution war and war's aftermathNow am I daring to accuse American strategic planners of deliberately eradicating peasant villages in order to smoke out the girls who would have little choice but to sexually service the same boys who bombed shelled strafed torched pillaged or merely forcibly evacuated said villages? I am merely noting that the creation of native prostitutes to service foreign privates is an inevitable outcome of a war of occupation one of those nasty little side effects of defending freedom that all the wives sisters girlfriends mothers pastors and politicians in Smallville USA pretend to ignore behind waxed and buffed walls of teeth as they welcome their soldiers home ready to treat any unmentionable afflictions with the penicillin of American goodnessIt rarely takes me over two weeks to finish a book but this one had to be poured over and savoredWhat's crazy is living when there's no reason to live he said What am I living for? A life in our apartment? That's not a home It's a jail cell without bars All of us we're all in jail cells without bars We're not men any Not after the Americans fucked us twice and made our wives and kids watch First the Americans said we'll save your yellow skins Just do what we say Fight our way take our money give us your women then you'll be free Things didn't work out that way did they? Then after fucking us they rescued us They just didn't tell us they'd cut off our balls and cut out our tongues along the way But you know what? If we were real men we wouldn't have let them do thatHighly recommended a tough but worthwhile readThe war's over Ms Mori said Don't they know that? I wanted to say something profound as I stood up to say goodnight I wanted to impress Ms Mori with the intellect she could never have again Wars never die I said They just go to sleep


  9. says:

    I am a spy a sleeper a spook a man of two faces Perhaps not surprisingly I am also a man of two minds With these words Viet Thanh Nguyen decides to start the novel and these two sentences were enough to get me hooked They managed to intrigue me to want to know and set the basis for what will prove to be one of the main theme the interior conflict of the narrator The Symphatizer is a book about the Vietnam War and its aftermath The book is about loyalty identity and the difficulty to adjust to a new culture and reality It written from the point of view of the Vietnamese and does not always put the Americans in a positive light This novel is a perfect companion to the uiet American by Graham Green a masterpiece the only other book about the Vietnam war that I read Actually the uiet American is mentioned a couple of times in the Symphatizer One theme that I found in both books is about the “innocent” and idealized intentions with which the Americans entered the Vietnam War and their failure to admit ant wrongdoing “They believe in a universe of divine justice where the human race is guilty of sin but they also believe in a secular justice where human beings are presumed innocent You can’t have both You know how Americans deal with it? They pretend they are eternally innocent no matter how many times they lose their innocence The problem is that those who insist on their innocence believe anything they do is just At least we who believe in our own guilt know what dark things we can do” A similar idea I selected for my review of the uiet American Innocence is a kind of insanity” “Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell wandering the world meaning no harm” The novel kept me on the edge of the seat for the first 100 pages or so when the fall of Saigon is described and thorough the escape to USA of the main characters When the setting moves to Los Angeles the pace slows down and my interest begins to gradually fall culminating with the making of the movie in Thailand Those chapters were excruciatingly slow and the smart writing barely managed to make the experience bearable My interest picked up after that and the last 20% of the book were as good as the beginning I do not want to say too much about that except that it was the most disturbing part of the novel The book is cleverly written I loved the author’s way with words I did not expect to find humor among these pages even less one similar to Vonnegut’s a realization I had while reading another review I noticed a particularity of the writing style that I want to share with you The author uses a lot of sexual metaphors when describing war scenes Here are two examples “stubby grenades resembling short metallic dildos” and ”a parachute flare sputtering into spermating existence” I wonder what the meaning behind them is Is it because war as sex is about power control performance and status? Is it because the two acts dehumanize us to some extent? In the end I also want to let you all know that I will never look at a suid the same way ever again The ones that read the novel know why


  10. says:

    If you ever struggle with your feelings and understanding about America’s role in the Vietnam War this book could give you a useful framework to both widespread blaming and forms of forgiveness to both sides There really was no right side to be on and the Vietnamese people became a pawns in a larger struggle Our country itself was cursed bastardized partitioned into north and south and if it could be said of us that we chose division and death in our uncivil war that was also only partially true We had not chosen to be debased by the French to be divided by them into an unholy trinity of north center and south and to be turned over to the great powers of capitalism and communism for a further bisection then given roles as the clashing armies of a Cold War chess match played in air conditioned rooms by white men wearing suits and liesWith this story we get a rare authentic Vietnamese perspective here that delves masterfully into the large uestions of identity in the context of nationalism race culture and morality Written by a Vietnamese immigrant this Pulitzer Prize winning book is incredibly ambitious and often challenging to read It’s hard to identify with the slippery duality of the narrator who served as a communist spy within the South Vietnamese republic and continues to do so while in America His intellectual and sardonic tone creates an ongoing barrier in the reader’s emotional engagement with his fate Yet this approach was very effective to lead me to begin to see everything about this hot spot for the superpower’s Cold War in many shades of gray rather than an unrealistic black and white In an interview published at the end of the hardback Nguyen usefully explains some of his goal with the book I did not want to write this book as a way of explaining the humanity of Vietnamese Toni Morrison says in Beloved that to have to explain yourself to white people distorts you because you start from a position of assuming your inhumanity or lack of humanity in other people’s eyes Rather than writing a book that tries to affirm humanity which is typically the position that minority writers are put into the book starts from the assumption that we are human and then goes on to prove that we’re also inhuman at the same timeThe story begins in the middle and works alternatingly backward and forward We start with the life of this “sleeper” agent who has recently immigrated to California after the fall of Saigon 1975 The narration has the flavor of both justification and confession We only know him as the ‘captain’ his rank as an aide to the general commanding the South Vietnam secret police with whom he fled with the relatively small fraction of natives loyal to the Americans His conflicted persona has early origins in his life as an offspring of a French priest and peasant Vietnamese girl earning him lifelong revulsion and mistrust as a bastard He has chosen a path set by the communists seeking freedom and independence from all colonialists and his role of spy in the midst of his countrymen on the side of the American aggressors suits his chameleon character The pompous Oriental studies professor for whom he works as a menial assistant puts forth a theory that for him to balance the Asian and Western traits in his character will make him especially valuable for the collective effort to forge a way for East and West to coexist While in many ways reviling his Western half the idea of him being a one man “melting pot” aligns with his mother’s mantra to him “Remember you're not half of anything you're twice of everything” My weakness for sympathizing with others has much to do with my status as a bastard which is not to say that being a bastard naturally predisposes one to sympathy Many bastards behave like bastards and I credit my gentle mother with teaching me the idea that blurring the lines between us and them can be a worthy behaviorThe captain truly does sympathize with the general in his integrity and honest choice to fight the communists He admires the general’s efforts to get everyone who served with him out of country in the tragic chaos of the last days before total takeover of Saigon We get a harrowing narrative of those last days including the death of his best friend’s family The caption also shares in the exiles’ sense of alienation and depression as they struggle to adapt to life in America The ordinary Americans understand so little of what they have been through or what their blundering under naïve idealism has wreaked on their country “No one asks poor people if they want war” When the captain was an exchange student in the US in high school he didn’t feel this alienated as it was natural to be treated as an exotic foreigner Now it is easy to identify with the general trying not to succumb to despair over the loss of his county Others do not do so well a fair percentage collecting both welfare and dust moldering in the stale air of subsidized apartments as their testes shriveled day by day consumed by the metastasizing cancer called assimilation and susceptible to the hypochondria of exileOur protagonist also empathizes with the general’s daughter Lana who embraces the wild life of the youth culture in California going so far as to perform in skimpy dress with a musical group Our captain is too human to resist her charms I uietly uaffed my cognac discreetly admiring Lana's legs Longer than the Bible and a hell of a lot fun they stretched forever like an Indian yogi or an American highway shimmering through the Great Plains or the southwestern desert Her legs demanded to be looked at and would not take no non nein nyet or even maybe for an answerEventually out captain gets drawn into the evolution of plans to lead an insurgency against the communist victors using resources of sympathetic right wing Americans shade of the “Bay of Pigs” incursion by expatriate Cubans And this is exactly his job to monitor and report in coded communications such counter revolutionary activity to his handler It’s so eerie how good our protagonist’s work is as a double agent all founded on his human capacity to sympathize with others But over and over in this tale we get this message A person’s strength was always his weakness and vice versaHe suffers when in the course of serving the general he has to participate in the elimination of exiles suspected of being communist agents Back in Saigon when he had to participate even indirectly in the torture of suspected Viet Cong for his work with the secret police he was doubly guilty when the victim was a legitimate agent and he could do nothing to intervene without blowing his coverThis read totally twists you up The career of a double agent is so far from the life of a true believer on either side of a conflict As a reader the beginnings of empathy for this deceptive character comes when he is tormented by the experience of ghosts of the innocent who die as collateral damage from his career At one point he gets to act with a purpose in unity with both the communist and anticommunist drivers in his life a service as an advisor to a movie director in the process of making a film along the lines of “Apocalypse Now” ie “an epic about white men saving good yellow people from bad yellow people” one “where the losers would write history instead of the victors courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created” When asked to review the script for authenticity with respect to Vietnamese culture our captain is affronted that there is no speaking part for a Vietnamese character In this forthcoming Hollywood trompe d’oeil all the Vietnamese of any side would come out poor herded into the roles of the poor the innocent the evil or the corrupt Our fate was not to be merely mute; we were to be struck dumbuite a worthwhile section of this book is devoted to our protagonist’s efforts to work with the the Vietnamese extras from the exile community at the filming location in the Philippines This was the best part of the book for me The parts the arrogant “auteur” puts into the film for Vietnamese characters ends up being ones of incredible brutality of the Vietnamese against each other with Americans retaining hero status on the side Not exactly what our captain wanted but a fair allegory of the war itself The mirror held up for American readers like me can be pretty powerful For my own history I dodged the draft by raising my blood pressure and participated in anti war actions like the big march on Washington yet was taken aback with shame over Jane Fonda’s friendly confab with Ho Chi Minh and with our ultimate failure to stop the dominoes falling No hand washing can clean our guilt but as a nation we shrugged it all off Americans are a confused people because they can't admit this contradiction They believe in a universe of divine justice where the human race is guilty of sin but they also believe in a secular justice where human beings are presumed innocentYou know how Americans deal with it? They pretend they are eternally innocent no matter how many times they lose their innocence The problem is that those who insist on their innocence believe anything they do is just At least we who believe in our own guilt know what dark things we can doThe story is brought to a dramatic conclusion in a harrowing sections in the end which I will steer clear of any revelation The only hint I will give is that we learn why the narrative has the flavor of a confession of sorts And we understand how our protagonist’s admirable efforts at loyalty both of his two “blood brother” friends from childhood end up contributing of some serious soul rendering as one serves with the general’s crew and the other is his secret communist handler I feel this book will stand the test of time as a classic up there with Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and Greene’s “The uiet American