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The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
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The Sympathizer (2015)

by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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1,492724,973 (3.94)115
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Showing 1-5 of 68 (next | show all)
I started this one a while ago and got bored in the action spy parts in the first 100 pages so put it aside.* I picked it up again and started to like it once it got more into the character development. It’s a story of a double agent working for the Viet Cong living in LA after the end of the Vietnam war. It’s his struggle to be true to his beliefs while also questioning them that in my view earned this book the Pulitzer. I also learned of the many Vietnamese soldiers who fought on the the American side and felt abandoned at the end, something I never knew. The torture scenes are especially gruesome but in a way that shows war as a terrible weakness of human history and not glorifying it in the way the Hollywood movie does earlier in the book.

*Many of the reviews speak positively of the fast-paced spy/thriller action parts of the book. I’ll chalk up my distaste to my personal fault as a reader, similar to how I can’t sit through action movies like the Bourne movies or mission impossible movies. So if that’s something you like, you may enjoy these parts of the book. ( )
  strandbooks | Jun 26, 2018 |
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 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! ( )
  LukeS | Jun 14, 2018 |
Beautifully written! ( )
  nheredia05 | Jun 12, 2018 |
Nota bene: The whole time I was reading this book I kept comparing it in my head to the TV show The Americans, which is about Soviet spies living as a normal American family in the 1980s, and which has many of the same themes as this book. This is deeply unfair to The Sympathizer, because The Americans is one of my favorite TV shows of all time.

The first half of this book is really fascinating; it took me into a world I knew nothing about, and I was totally hooked. I wasn't wild about the narrative voice, which felt a little stark to me (we later discover the reason for this), but I really cared about what was happening to the characters. About the time that the main character wanders onto a movie set, though, the novel started to fall apart and never really recovered its momentum. The ending section is much too long and really throws the pace of the book off.

Nguyen's themes -- identity, assimilation, characters caught between two worlds -- are interesting and resonant, and the book is worth reading for that alone. But I wouldn't entirely blame you if you set it aside after three-quarters or so. ( )
1 vote GaylaBassham | May 27, 2018 |
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 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.

Quotes:
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.” ( )
2 vote gbill | Mar 20, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 68 (next | show all)
...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.
added by thorold | editThe Guardian, Randy Boyagoda (Mar 12, 2016)
 
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Epigraph
Let us not become gloomy as soon as we hear the word 'torture': in this particular case there is plenty to offset and mitigate that word-even something to laugh at.

-Friedrich Nietzsche, 'On the genealogy of morals'
Dedication
For Alan and Ellison
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I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.
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Amazon: The winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, compared by critics to the works of Graham Greene, Denis Johnson, and George Orwell, The Sympathizer is a blistering exploration of identity, politics, and America, wrought in electric prose. The narrator, a Vietnamese army captain, is a man of divided loyalties, a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist sleeper agent in America after the end of the Vietnam War. A powerful story of love and friendship, and a gripping espionage novel, The Sympathizer examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.
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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.

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