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The Sympathizer (2015)

by Viet Thanh Nguyen

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
2,2461004,791 (3.9)166
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."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"--Amazon.com.… (more)
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» See also 166 mentions

English (96)  Piratical (1)  French (1)  Spanish (1)  Italian (1)  All languages (100)
Showing 1-5 of 96 (next | show all)
This book is bleakly funny, and it really pulled me in despite it not being a great time for bleak fiction for me. It left me with a much better view of a big hole in my history education - I feel like US history pretty much stopped at WWII in all my history classes, or maybe the Kennedy assassination, and my knowledge of the Vietnam war is severely lacking. I definitely have more reading to do. ( )
  duchessjlh | Jul 14, 2020 |
Beginning at the time of the airlift of South Vietnamese allies out of Saigon, and continuing through the refugee years, our hero tells his story. He is a communist double agent, working closely as an aide to a South Vietnamese general. Told to his jailer in flashbacks, this novel explores the cost of war on the Vietnamese, the Americanization of refugees, and the exploitation of the war story in American culture. It is funny, biting, and tragic. Highly recommended. ( )
  rglossne | Jul 1, 2020 |
This novel is very smart, and very dense, and it has a lot to say about colonization, American culture, the French, Vietnam and the Vietnamese, and war. Also immigration and how clueless Americans are about the workers in their midst--shop owners, delivery drivers, neighbors sharing a common wall. They may have been colonels, successful businessmen, or otherwise very successful people in their homelands, now trying to start over as adults and as older adults.

That said, the movie section largely went over my head (as I was reading it, I knew I had to have been missing something). In the Acknowledgements, Nguyen says "the inspiration for the Movie can hardly be a secret". Well, it was for me. I have never seen Apocalypse Now (or Platoon, which he also mentions). I don't like war movies, and really I don't much like movies in general. I prefer....books! Unsurprisingly, this book does not want to make me watch Apocalypse Now. ( )
1 vote Dreesie | Jun 3, 2020 |
The Sympathizer feels as if it is a crust of overly clever wordplay floating on an ocean of grievances. The story itself is not bad. But it's certainly not a novel that is novel. I don't believe my reaction is to what I consider overzealous reviews of the book so much as it is to reading just a week or so before beginning The Sympathizer three works on the Indochina war I consider much superior, one by Christopher Koch and two by Norman Lewis.

While Viet Thanh Nguyen in both this book and interviews has claimed to be breaking new ground with a view of the war from the Vietnamese side of things, he is simply wrong. Oliver Stone did it on film, in 1993's Heaven and Earth, which itself was based on Le Ly Heyslip's memoirs just four years earlier. Even more important was a novel that looked at the war in Indochina across Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos and did so with a much more challenging formalistic approach, Christopher Koch's Highways to a War, which specifically sought to give a voice to people of Indochina on the losing side. And there of course is Norman Lewis' travel book that encountered Indochina at the beginning of the war in 1950, A Dragon Apparent, and his novel set in Thailand and Laos, dealing with the Viet Minh, in 1953, A Single Pilgrim.

I believe it was a The New York Times review that compared The Sympathizer to Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad. It certainly goes for the crisis of the soul those two authors so often depicted. But it achieves only a shallow engagement with the idea. Nguyen is too far removed from the environment he wants to discuss. His scenes in Vietnam seem devoid of people--and they never make you feel the sweat, humidity, and sun powered brightness Greene and Conrad brought to Southeast Asia. In fact, even Somerset Maugham does a better job of it than Nguyen. And things are no better in the locations in the United States, where Nguyen's soliloquies and dialogue take place in empty parking lots, apartments, and restaurants that seem like they were made for the theater.

The Sympathizer does pick up the pieces of popular culture, alluding to Apocalypse Now, 1984, and maybe even Darkness at Noon. But his wry and mocking attitude too often resembles a 14 year-old who has just discovered hypocrisy exists in the world and who then turns into a juvenile cynic. Frankly, it's tedious.

One last thing. What is with the affectatious use of British words? The author is an American who teaches American studies. And he is describing South Vietnamese soldiers equipped, trained and allied to Americans (and a few Australians). And nobody in the US army or elsewhere in America in the mid 1970s carried "kit." The word is "gear." And why the reference to chocolate covered "biscuits," instead of "cookies." This happened more than a few times. I can only think the author is trying to appeal to mid-Atlantic hipsters who got diverted from their soccer game. ( )
  PaulCornelius | Apr 12, 2020 |
This book was exhausting. The characters, the setting, the endless torture and gang rape scenes. Hard to read. The worst part was the writing. In particular, the dialogue is awful. For the first part of the book, there is very little dialogue. Eventually, the author warms up to trying it, and the conversations always feel completely artificial, made up. I don't usually complain about missing quotation marks. In the best case, the technique can help make the dialogue feel very immediate, drawing me into the story. Here, it felt like an excuse for the abstract and disconnected quotations. For all that, the story is very different. ( )
  breic | Mar 9, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 96 (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)
The more powerful a country is, the more disposed its people will be to see it as the lead actor in the sometimes farcical, often tragic pageant of history. So it is that we, citizens of a superpower, have viewed the Vietnam War as a solely American drama in which the febrile land of tigers and elephants was mere backdrop and the Vietnamese mere extras.
Très beau roman qui raconte le parcours d’un agent secret Viêt-Cong infiltré côté américain pendant la guerre du Vietnam. L’action débute au moment de l’évacuation des troupes américaines et des Vietnamiens collaborateurs.
added by Marc-Narcisse | editLe sympathisant
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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
For Lan 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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