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The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 371 pgs.
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The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which was our April book club selection, is a novel that satirizes the aftermath of the Vietnam war, but it also is a serious examination of identity from the point of view of someone who is a subversive and a mole within the South Vietnamese military at the time of the war. The Captain, who remains unnamed, is in the South Vietnamese military but feeding information to the People’s Army of Vietnam (communists) through his childhood friend, Man. Meanwhile, their third childhood friend, Bon, has been trained as an assassin by the CIA. Balancing his friendship with his duty to the communists becomes a balance that the Captain often loses, but as he has so few real connections with others, it is his friend Bon who pays the highest cost.

“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.” (pg. 1)

In many ways the opening of the novel will signal to the reader that everything told by the Captain may be untrue or at least partly. But he also seeks to set himself up as a sympathetic character who is torn not only by his heritage — the son of a Vietnamese mother and French priest — but also by his knowledge of America from being abroad at school and his communist leanings. After fleeing Vietnam with the General when the Americans lost the war to the communists, the Captain longs to return, but he is repeatedly told that he must remain a mole among those exiled to America to ensure they are not planning a return. He is forced to swallow more of the bitter pill that his life is not his own, even in America.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen provides a deep look at issues of mixed cultures and races, how they are treated in Vietnam and America during this time period, and how difficult it was to reconcile defeat on either side. It also asks the bigger questions about revolution and the disillusionment of passionate idealists. Corruption of any revolution can occur, and that can be the most devastating for the passionate idealist, but how does it affect those who can see both sides of the equation? And is the real crime to have done nothing or to not have truly chosen a side to be on — right or wrong?

RATING: Cinquain

What the Book Club Thought:

The discussion compared the novel to 1984 and to Catch-22 for its satire, but mostly, we were engrossed in the plight of the Captain and his identity issues. We found it hard for him as a European-Vietnamese man with communist and American-leaning tendencies to reconcile all that he was and commit himself to one cause. Overall, most of the members at the meeting “enjoyed” the book, though one or two members were less than thrilled by the disembodied scenes in the interrogation room, which they felt took them out of the story.

About the Author:

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer is a New York Times best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Other honors include the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel from the Mystery Writers of America, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction from the American Library Association, the First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction, a Gold Medal in First Fiction from the California Book Awards, and the Asian/Pacific American Literature Award from the Asian/Pacific American Librarian Association. His other books are Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction) and Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. He is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. His next book is a short story collection, The Refugees, forthcoming in February 2017 from Grove Press.

  • bermudaonion(Kathy)

    Wow, I can tell you loved this. I’m adding it to my wish list.

  • iliana

    I’ve read so many good reviews of this one. Definitely on my list!

  • Suko

    This must be extraordinary, since you gave it 5 stars. Wonderful review! Thanks for including some of what your book club thought of this work.

    Have a happy Mother’s Day!

  • Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

    This sounds really interesting!