Sympathizer (Nguyen)

The Sympathizer
Viet Thanh Nguyen*, 2015
Grove / Atlantic
384 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780802124944

Winner, 2016 Pulitizer Prize
Winner, 2016 Edgar Award

A profound, startling, and beautifully crafted debut novel,
The Sympathizer is the story of a man of two minds, someone whose political beliefs clash with his individual loyalties.

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. (From the publisher.)

*Pronounced "when" with a slight "ng" at the onset.

Author Bio
Where—Buon Me Thuot, Vietnam
Raised—Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; San Jose, California, USA
Education—B.A., Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley
Awards—Pulitizer Prize; Edgar Award (see more below)
Currently—lives in Los Angeles, California

Viet Than Nguyen (Pronounced "when" with a slight "ng" at the onset.) was born in Buon Me Thuot, Vietnam. He came to the United States as a refugee in 1975 with his family and was initially settled in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, one of four such camps for Vietnamese refugees. From there, he moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he lived until 1978.

Seeking better economic opportunities, his parents moved to San Jose, California, and opened one of the first Vietnamese grocery stores in the city. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, San Jose had not yet been transformed by the Silicon Valley economy, and was in many ways a rough place to live, at least in the downtown area where Viet’s parents worked. He commemorates this time in his short story “The War Years” (TriQuarterly 135/136, 2009).

Education and teaching
Viet attended St. Patrick School and Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose. After high school, he briefly attended UC Riverside and UCLA before settling on UC Berkeley, where he graduated with degrees in English and ethnic studies. He stayed at Berkeley, earning his Ph.D. in English.

After getting his degree, Viet moved to Los Angeles for a teaching position at the University of Southern California, and has been there ever since.

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

He has written a collection of short stories and an academic book called Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, which is the critical bookend to a creative project whose fictional bookend is The Sympathizer (2015). Nothing Ever Dies examines how the so-called Vietnam War has been remembered by many countries and people, from the US to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and South Korea, across literature, film, art, museums, memorials, and monuments.

People not familiar with Vietnamese culture sometimes have a hard time pronouncing Viet's surname. The Anglicization of Nguyen leads to further issues. Is it pronounced Noo-yen? Or Win? It’s never pronounced Ne-goo-yen. The Win version is closer to the Vietnamese and seems to be the favored choice for Vietnamese Americans.

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Winner of the 2016 Edgar Award for Best First Novel
Winner of the 2016 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction
Winner of the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
Winner of the 2015-2016 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature (Adult Fiction)
Finalist for the 2016 PEN/Faulkner Award
Finalist for the 2016 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction
Named a Best Book of the Year on more than twenty lists, including the New York Times Book Review, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post

(Author bio adapted from the author's website.)

Book Reviews
The great achievement of The Sympathizer is that it gives the Vietnamese a voice and demands that we pay attention. Until now, it's been largely a one-sided conversation—or at least that's how it seems in American popular culture…[where] we've heard about the Vietnam War mostly from the point of view of American soldiers, American politicians and American journalists. We've never had a story quite like this one before…[Nguyen] has a great deal to say and a knowing, playful, deeply intelligent voice. His novel is a spy thriller, a philosophical exploration, a coming-of-age tale, the story of what it's like to be an immigrant, to be part-Asian, to be the illegitimate child of a forbidden liaison. It's about being forced to hide yourself under so many layers that you're not sure who you are…There are so many passages to admire. Mr. Nguyen is a master of the telling ironic phrase and the biting detail, and the book pulses with Catch-22-style absurdities…[Nguyen] undercuts horror with humor and then swings it back around.
Sarah Lyall - New York Times

[R]emarkable…Nguyen…brings a distinct perspective to the war and its aftermath. His book fills a void in the literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless while it compels the rest of us to look at the events of 40 years ago in a new light. But this tragicomic novel reaches beyond its historical context to illuminate more universal themes: the eternal misconceptions and misunderstandings between East and West, and the moral dilemma faced by people forced to choose not between right and wrong, but right and right. The nameless protagonist-narrator, a memorable character despite his anonymity, is an Americanized Vietnamese with a divided heart and mind. Nguyen's skill in portraying this sort of ambivalent personality compares favorably with masters like Conrad, Greene and le Carré.
Philip Caputo - New York Times Book Review

[A] dark and exciting debut novel.... The Sympathizer starts with the fall of Saigon in 1975, depicting the corrupt jockeying for places on the departing planes. It’s a frenzied, abrasive, attention-grabbing overture.... Excoriating ironies abound.... Black humor seeps through these pages.
Wall Street Journal

Extraordinary.... Surely a new classic of war fiction.... [Nguyen] has wrapped a cerebral thriller around a desperate expat story that confronts the existential dilemmas of our age... Laced with insight on the ways nonwhite people are rendered invisible in the propaganda that passes for our pop culture.... I haven’t read anything since Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four that illustrates so palpably how a patient tyrant, unmoored from all humane constraint, can reduce a man’s mind to liquid.
Washington Post

Stunned, amazed, impressed. [The Sympathizer is] so skillfully and brilliantly executed that I cannot believe this is a first novel. (I should add jealous to my emotions.) Upends our notions of the Vietnam novel.
Chicago Tribune

The Sympathizer reads as part literary historical fiction, part espionage thriller and part satire. American perceptions of Asians serve as some of the book’s most deliciously tart commentary.... Nguyen knows of what he writes.
Los Angeles Times

Sparkling and audacious.... Unique and startling.... Nguyen’s prose is often like a feverish, frenzied dream, a profuse and lively stream of images sparking off the page.... Nguyen can be wickedly funny.... [His] narrator has an incisive take on Asian-American history and what it means to be a nonwhite American...this remarkable, rollicking read by a Vietnamese immigrant heralds an exciting new voice in American literature
Seattle Times

Welcome a unique new voice to the literary chorus.... [The Sympathizer] is, among other things, a character-driven thriller, a political satire, and a biting historical account of colonization and revolution. It dazzles on all fronts.
Cleveland Plain Dealer

The novel’s best parts are painful, hilarious exposures of white tone-deafness...[the] satire is delicious.
New Yorker

A dark, funny—and Vietnamese—look at the Vietnam War.... The novel is rife with insight and criticism—and importantly...the perspective of a Vietnamese person during and after the war.
All Things Considered, NPR

This debut is a page-turner (read: everybody will finish) that makes you reconsider the Vietnam War (read: everyone will have an opinion).... Nguyen’s darkly comic novel offers a point of view about American culture that we’ve rarely seen.

(Starred review.) [A]stonishing....a lively, wry first-person narrator called the Captain...[navigates] the fall of Saigon.... [As] Vietnamese exiles settle uncomfortably in an America....the Captain is forced to incriminate others.... Nguyen’s novel enlivens debate about history and human nature....poignant, often mirthful....
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) Ultimately a meditation on war, political movements, America's imperialist role, the CIA, torture, loyalty, and one's personal identity, this is a powerful, thought-provoking work. —Reba Leiding, emeritus, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA
Library Journal

(Starred review.) Nguyen’s cross-grained protagonist exposes the hidden costs in both countries of America’s tragic Asian misadventure. Nguyen’s probing literary art illuminates how Americans failed in their political and military attempt to remake Vietnam—but then succeeded spectacularly in shrouding their failure in Hollywood distortions. Compelling—and profoundly unsettling.

(Starred review.) A closely written novel of after-the-war Vietnam, when all that was solid melted into air. As Graham Greene and Robert Stone have taught us, on the streets of Saigon, nothing is as it seems.... Both chilling and funny, and a worthy addition to the library of first-rate novels about the Vietnam War.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll include publisher questions if they're made available. In the meantime, use these LitLovers talking points to kick start a discussion for The Sympathizer:

1. What does the narrator mean when he tells us, "I am a man of two minds"? How does this statement reverberate throughout the book?

2. Comparisons of this work have been made to Joseph Heller's Catch-22, an absurdist take on World War II. Nguyen includes similar satire in The Sympathizer. One such example is this statement::

It was a smashingly successful cease-fire, for in the last two years only 150,000 soldiers had died. Imagine how many would have died without a truce!

Can you find other examples where the author employs similar satiric wit? What affect does such a stylistic device have on your reading? Does the black humor lessen the horror of the war, or draw more attention to it?

3. Talk about the conclusion of the book, which many describe as shattering. Was it so for you? How has the narrator been changed by his experiences? What has he come to learn about himself, his culpability, his identify, the war, America and Vietnam?

4. The narrator says that the war in Vietnam "was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors." What does he mean by that? What do you know (or remember) about the war—and how did you come to know it? How does point of view, who does the telling, alter one's understanding of history?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution Thanks.)

top of page (summary)

Site by BOOM Boom Supercreative

LitLovers © 2022