Viet Thanh Nguyen’s remarkable debut novel, The Sympathizer, has won a slew of literary awards, including the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It was also a finalist for a number of other prestigious awards and has been named a Best Book of the Year on more than twenty lists, including those of the New York Times Book Review, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. If there is such a thing as a Great Vietnamese Novel, as there is supposedly a Great American Novel, this book would certainly be a candidate.
Vietnam in the 1970s
The Sympathizer opens in April 1975 as troops of the North Vietnamese army and the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) are closing in on Saigon. The remnants of the American mission and many thousands of South Vietnamese officials and other collaborators are frantically fighting to claim the few remaining spaces on American airplanes available for the evacuation. In the midst of this chaos we meet the narrator, a captain in the South Vietnamese army. He introduces himself this way in the opening line of his account: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” He is, in fact, the Sympathizer of the title — a secret agent of the NLF actually living in the home of the General who commands the South Vietnamese security police, the Special Branch. He is Eurasian, the son of a French priest and a poor Vietnamese woman, and regularly receives abuse as a result.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015) 351 pages ★★★★★
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
A spook’s confession
The novel, structured as a confession to an unnamed Commandant and the “faceless Commissar” above him, follows the narrator through the next several years as he flees Saigon with the General and takes up a double life in Southern California, reporting to his handler in Vietnam on the activities of the immigrant Vietnamese community and the General’s plans to resume the war from afar. We can only guess why he is writing a confession.
The narrator’s handler is his boyhood friend, Man, who is a senior Communist cadre. At the age of fourteen, he, Man, and a third boy, Bon, swore a blood oath to be loyal friends forever. Now, more than a decade later, the three men represent radically different responses to the American invasion, as Bon has been a loyal South Vietnamese soldier — and a participant in the CIA’s notorious Phoenix Program.
A vivid portrait of the Vietnam War
“We were not a people who charged into war at the beck and call of bugle or trumpet,” the narrator writes. “No, we fought to the tunes of love songs, for we were the Italians of Asia.” He also writes, “Even if they found themselves in Heaven, our countrymen would find occasion to remark that it was not as warm as Hell.” And this: “We were too poor for air-conditioning, but heat stroke was simply another way of expressing religious fortitude.” With trenchant observations and humor such as this, Nguyen delves deeply into the Vietnamese psyche as he spins out his account of the war with merciless detail.
One of the defining events of the narrator’s story is the work he does as a consultant on a Hollywood film reminiscent of Apocalypse Now. The references are unmistakable, and Nguyen makes the association clear in his acknowledgments, where he cites numerous sources about Francis Ford Coppola and his signature film about Vietnam. Nguyen clearly is not a big fan. He writes, alluding to the production, “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).”
Nguyen makes clear in the closing pages of his novel, he’s no fan of the victorious Vietnamese government, either. Nor does the author, or at least his alter ego, the narrator, admire the United States, as we may already have deduced: “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.”
Clearly, despite all the awards, this is not a book that will find favor among the commentators on Fox News.
About the author
Viet Thanh Nguyen was four years old in 1975, when the novel opens. He is an Associate Professor of English, American Studies, and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California and the author of two nonfiction books as well as a number of short stories. The Sympathizer is his first novel.
For further reading
Check out The Quiet American by Graham Greene—The classic Vietnam novel by Graham Greene and The 10 top espionage novels reviewed on this site. For a very different perspective on the war in Vietnam, see Of Rice and Men by Richard Galli (A Vietnam War novel that’s at once both funny and poignant).
You’ll find this book on The 40 best books of the decade from 2010-19 as well as on my list of The decade’s top 10 historical novels, mysteries & thrillers, and science fiction.
If you enjoy reading history in fictional form, check out 20 most enlightening historical novels (plus dozens of runners-up). And if you’re looking for exciting historical novels, check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here (plus 100 others).
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