Summary and book reviews of The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Sympathizer

by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2015, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2016, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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About this Book

Book Summary

Winner of 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. A startling debut novel featuring one of the most remarkable narrators of recent fiction: a conflicted subversive and idealist working as a double agent in the aftermath of the Vietnam War

Winner of 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. 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.

CHAPTER 1

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times, when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you—that is a hazard, I must confess. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear.

The month in question was April, the cruelest month. It was the month in which a war that ...

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  • award image

    Pulitzer Prize for Letters, Drama and Music
    2016

Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The Sympathizer himself is a marvel of a complex character, navigating his many loyalties with outward aplomb even as he is internally conflicted by his actions. With flawless writing, Nguyen paints his protagonist as a man haunted by many ghosts, both literal and metaphorical, primary among them being his very identity.   (Reviewed by Poornima Apte).

Full Review (652 words).

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Media Reviews

The New York Times Book Review

Both thriller and social satire. . . . In its final chapters, The Sympathizer becomes an absurdist tour de force that might have been written by a Kafka or Genet.

The Washington Post

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. . . . Nguyen plumbs the loneliness of human life, the costs of fraternity and the tragic limits of our sympathy.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Nguyen's novel enlivens debate about history and human nature, and his narrator has a poignant, often mirthful voice.

Library Journal

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. It's hard to believe this effort, one of the best recent novels to cover the Vietnamese conflict from an Asian perspective, is a debut.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Both chilling and funny, and a worthy addition to the library of first-rate novels about the Vietnam War.

Than Nien Daily

Nguyen’s voice is sharp and acerbic and unforgiving and ungrateful. He’s funny and bright and he goes farther than any author in pursuing his spy’s one professed talent—one that war made undesirable for generations—trying to understand things from both sides.

Author Blurb T.C. Boyle
Magisterial. A disturbing, fascinating and darkly comic take on the fall of Saigon and its aftermath, and a powerful examination of guilt and betrayal.

Author Blurb Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
Not only does Viet Thanh Nguyen bring a rare and authentic voice to the body of American literature generated by the Vietnam War, he has created a book that transcends history and politics and nationality and speaks to the enduring theme of literature: the universal quest for self, for identity.

Author Blurb Vincent Lam, author of Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures and The Headmaster's Wager
By turns harrowing, and cut through by shards of unexpected and telling humor, this novel gives us the conflict in Vietnam, and its aftermath, in a way that is deeply truthful, and vitally important.

Author Blurb David Abrams, author of Fobbit
I think I'd have to go all the way back to Nabokov's Humbert Humbert to find the last narrative voice that so completely conked me over the head and took me prisoner.

Reader Reviews

Pat

Thoughtful, Painful, Truthful
The author helps us to see the humanity and inhumanity, which is intrinsic in every person and in every war. He guides us to remember and to know the terrible truths about war and history that we have forgotten or never known. The narrator is ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Fall of Saigon

Helicopter Evacuating Saigon 1975Viet Thanh Nguyen's debut The Sympathizer vividly describes the fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in the opening chapters as the narrator is transported out of the city along with a host of fellow citizens who have served the American cause in some way.

April 30, 2015 marked the fortieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Theoretically, the Vietnam war ended in 1973 with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords and the withdrawal of large-scale American troops. Nevertheless a skeletal force of U.S. Marines and military officers were retained to maintain U.S. consul offices in a few key South Vietnam cities including Saigon. A new Defense Attache's Office (DAO) was created to keep an eye on the geopolitical situation and to ...

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