The Sympathizer Hardcover – April 7, 2015
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An Amazon Best Book of April 2015: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer brilliantly draws you in with the opening line: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” It’s thrilling, rhythmic, and astonishing, as is the rest of Nguyen’s enthralling portrayal of the Vietnam War. The narrator is an undercover communist agent posing as a captain in the Southern Vietnamese Army. Set during the fall of Saigon and the years after in America, the captain spies on the general and the men he escaped with, sharing his information with his communist blood brothers in coded letters. But when his allegiance is called into question, he must act in a way that will haunt him forever. Political, historical, romantic and comic, The Sympathizer is a rich and hugely gratifying story that captures the complexity of the war and what it means to be of two minds. --Al Woodworth
Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Winner of the 2016 Edgar Award for Best First Novel
Winner of the 2016 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction
Winner of the 2016 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Fiction
Winner of the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
Winner of the 2015-2016 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature (Adult Fiction)
Winner of the 2016 California Book Award for First Fiction
Winner of the 2017 Association for Asian American Studies Award for Best Book in Creative Writing (Prose)
Finalist for the 2016 PEN/Faulkner Award
Finalist for the 2016 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction
Finalist for the 2016 Medici Book Club Prize
Finalist for the 2015 Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Mystery/Thriller)
Finalist for the 2016 ABA Indies Choice/E.B. White Read-Aloud Award (Book of the Year, Adult Fiction)
Shortlisted for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award
Named a Best Book of the Year on more than twenty lists, including the New York Times Book Review, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post
A layered immigrant tale told in the wry, confessional voice of a man of two minds’and two countries, Vietnam and the United States.”Pulitzer Prize Citation
[A] remarkable debut novel . . . [Nguyen] brings a distinctive perspective to the war and its aftermath. His book fills a void in the literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless . . . The nameless protagonist-narrator, a memorable character despite his anonymity, is an Americanized Vietnamese with a divided heart and mind. Nguyen’s skill in portraying this sort of ambivalent personality compares favorably with masters like Conrad, Greene, and le Carré. . . . 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.”Philip Caputo, New York Times Book Review (cover review)
This is more than a fresh perspective on a familiar subject. [The Sympathizer] is intelligent, relentlessly paced and savagely funny . . . The voice of the double-agent narrator, caustic yet disarmingly honest, etches itself on the memory.”Wall Street Journal (WSJ’s Best Books of 2015)
“Nguyen doesn’t shy away from how traumatic the Vietnam War was for everyone involved. Nor does he pass judgment about where his narrator’s loyalties should lie. Most war stories are clear about which side you should root for―The Sympathizer doesn’t let the reader off the hook so easily . . . Despite how dark it is, The Sympathizer is still a fast-paced, entertaining read . . . a much-needed Vietnamese perspective on the war.”―Bill Gates, Gates Notes
Extraordinary . . . Surely a new classic of war fiction. . . . [Nguyen] has wrapped a cerebral thriller around a desperate expat story that confronts the existential dilemmas of our age. . . . Laced with insight on the ways nonwhite people are rendered invisible in the propaganda that passes for our pop culture. . . . 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.”Washington Post
The great achievement of The Sympathizer is that it gives the Vietnamese a voice and demands that we pay attention. Until now, it’s been largely a one-sided conversationor at least that’s how it seems in American popular culture . . . We’ve never had a story quite like this one before. . . . [Nguyen] has a great deal to say and a knowing, playful, deeply intelligent voice . . . There are so many passages to admire. Mr. Nguyen is a master of the telling ironic phrase and the biting detail, and the book pulses with Catch-22-style absurdities.”New York Times
Beautifully written and meaty . . . really compelling. I had that kid-like feeling of being inside the book.”Claire Messud, Boston Globe
“Thrilling in its virtuosity, as in its masterly exploitation of the espionage-thriller genre, The Sympathizer was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and has come to be considered one of the greatest of Vietnam War novels . . . The book’s (unnamed) narrator speaks in an audaciously postmodernist voice, echoing not only Vladimir Nabokov and Ralph Ellison but the Dostoyevsky of Notes from the Underground.”―Joyce Carol Oates, New Yorker
“Gleaming and uproarious, a dark comedy of confession filled with charlatans, delusionists and shameless opportunists . . . The Sympathizer, like Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, examines American intentions, often mixed with hubris, benevolence and ineptitude, that lead the country into conflict.”―Los Angeles Times
“Both a riveting spy novel and a study in identity.”―Entertainment Weekly
This debut is a page-turner (read: everybody will finish) that makes you reconsider the Vietnam War (read: everyone will have an opinion) . . . Nguyen’s darkly comic novel offers a point of view about American culture that we’ve rarely seen.”Oprah.com (Oprah’s Book Club Suggestions)
The novel’s best parts are painful, hilarious exposures of white tone-deafness . . . [the] satire is delicious.”New Yorker
The Sympathizer reads as part literary historical fiction, part espionage thriller and part satire. American perceptions of Asians serve as some of the book’s most deliciously tart commentary . . . Nguyen knows of what he writes.”Los Angeles Times
Sparkling and audacious . . . Unique and startling . . . Nguyen’s prose is often like a feverish, frenzied dream, a profuse and lively stream of images sparking off the page. . . . Nguyen can be wickedly funny. . . . [His] narrator has an incisive take on Asian-American history and what it means to be a nonwhite American. . . . this remarkable, rollicking read by a Vietnamese immigrant heralds an exciting new voice in American literature.”Seattle Times
Stunned, amazed, impressed. [The Sympathizer is] so skillfully and brilliantly executed that I cannot believe this is a first novel. (I should add jealous to my emotions.) Upends our notions of the Vietnam novel.”Chicago Tribune
A very special, important, brilliant novel . . . Amazing . . . I don’t say brilliant about a lot of books, but this is a brilliant book . . . A fabulous book . . . that everyone should read.”Nancy Pearl, KUOW.org
Dazzling . . . I’ve read scads of Vietnam War books, but The Sympathizer has an exciting quality I haven’t encountered . . . A fascinating exploration of personal identity, cultural identity, and what it means to sympathize with two sides at once.”John Powers, Fresh Air, NPR (Books I Wish I’d Reviewed)
Powerful and evocative . . . Gripping.”San Francisco Chronicle
Welcome a unique new voice to the literary chorus. . . . [The Sympathizer] is, among other things, a character-driven thriller, a political satire, and a biting historical account of colonization and revolution. It dazzles on all fronts.”Cleveland Plain Dealer
[Nguyen’s] books perform an optic tilt about Vietnam and what America did there as profound as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Toni Morrison’s Beloved were to the legacy of racism and slavery.”John Freeman, Literary Hub
For those who have been waiting for the great Vietnamese American Vietnam War novel, this is it. More to the point: This is a great American Vietnam War novel. . . . It is the last word (I hope) on the horrors of the Vietnamese re-education camps that our allies were sentenced to when we left them swinging in the wind.”Vietnam Veterans of America
“What a story . . . [An] absorbing, elegantly written book . . . If you are an American, of any culture or color, you will benefit from reading this book which offers, in exquisite thought and phrase, the multi-layered experience of a war most Americans have blotted out of consciousness, suppressed, or willfully ignored. I’ve been waiting to read this book for decades.”―Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple
Magisterial. A disturbing, fascinating and darkly comic take on the fall of Saigon and its aftermath, and a powerful examination of guilt and betrayal. The Sympathizer is destined to become a classic and redefine the way we think about the Vietnam War and what it means to win and to lose.”T.C. Boyle
Trapped in endless civil war, the man who has two minds’ tortures and is tortured as he tries to meld the halves of his country and of himself. Viet Thanh Nguyen accomplishes this integration in a magnificent feat of storytelling. The Sympathizer is a novel of literary, historical, and political importance.”Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Fifth Book of Peace
It is a strong, strange and liberating joy to read this book, feeling with each page that a broken world is being knitted back together, once again whole and complete. As far as I am concerned, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizerboth a great American novel and a great Vietnamese novelwill close the shelf on the literature of the Vietnam War.”Bob Shacochis, author of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul
Read this novel with care; it is easy to read, wry, ironic, wise, and captivating, but it could change not only your outlook on the Vietnam War, but your outlook on what you believe about politics and ideology in general. It does what the best of literature does, expands your consciousness beyond the limitations of your body and individual circumstances.”Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn and What It Is Like to Go to War
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. The Sympathizer is a stellar debut by a writer of depth and skill.”Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
The Sympathizer is a remarkable and brilliant book. 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.”Vincent Lam, author of Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures and The Headmaster’s Wager
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. Nguyen and his unnamed protagonist certainly have made a name for themselves with one of the smartest, darkest, funniest books you'll read this year.”David Abrams, author of Fobbit
Audaciously and vividly imagined. A compelling read.”Andrew X. Pham, author of Catfish and Mandala
Nguyen’s cross-grained protagonist exposes the hidden costs in both countries of America’s tragic Asian misadventure. Nguyen’s probing literary art illuminates how Americans failed in their political and military attempt to remake Vietnambut then succeeded spectacularly in shrouding their failure in Hollywood distortions. Compellingand profoundly unsettling.”Booklist (starred review)
A closely written novel of after-the-war Vietnam, when all that was solid melted into air. As Graham Greene and Robert Stone have taught us, on the streets of Saigon, nothing is as it seems. . . . Think Alan Furst meets Elmore Leonard, and you’ll capture Nguyen at his most surreal . . . Both chilling and funny, and a worthy addition to the library of first-rate novels about the Vietnam War.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
[An] astonishing first novel . . . Nguyen’s novel enlivens debate about history and human nature, and his narrator has a poignant often mindful voice.”Publishers Weekly (starred, boxed review)
Breathtakingly cynical, the novel has its hilarious moments . . . 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 . . . is a debut. This is right up there with Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke."Library Journal (starred review)
I cannot remember the last time I read a novel whose protagonist I liked so much. Smart, funny, and self-critical, with a keen sense of when to let a story speak for itself (and when to gloss it with commentary). He’s someone I would like to have a beer with, despite the fact that his life’s work is the betrayal of his friends. . . . [Nguyen] proves a gifted and bold satirist.”Barnes & Noble Review
Riveting . . . The Sympathizer is not only a masterly espionage novel, but also a seminal work of 21st century American fiction. Giving voice to the Vietnamese experience in the United States, Nguyen offers profound insights into the legacy of war and the politically and racially charged atmosphere of the 1970s.”BookReporter
[A] shimmering debut novel . . . Leaping with lyrical verve, each page turns to a unique and hauntingly familiar voice that refuses to let us forget what people are capable of doing to each other.”Asian American Writers’ Workshop
Arresting . . . One of the best pieces of fiction about the Vietnam warand by a Vietnamese. . . . Stunning . . . Could it be that Nguyen has captured the shape of the devolution of war itself, from grand ambition to human ruin? . . . One of the finest novels of the Vietnam War published in recent years.”The Daily Beast
[An] intriguing confessional . . . [a] tour de force . . . So taken was I by the first quarter of the book that I believed myself to be reading an actual confession . . . The character himself . . . and the quality of the narration seized me, leaving me almost breathless in my pursuit of an ending.”Sewanee Review
Tremendously funny, with a demanding verbal texture . . . Both tender and a bit of a romp, the book reminded me of how big books can be.”Guardian (Best Books of 2015)
Astounding . . . [The unnamed narrator] will be compared to the morally exhausted spies, intelligence officers and double agents of Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, and John le Carré.”Toronto Star
- Item Weight : 1.45 pounds
- Hardcover : 384 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0802123457
- ISBN-13 : 978-0802123459
- Product Dimensions : 6.5 x 1.3 x 9.1 inches
- Publisher : Grove Press; First Edition/ Second Printing (April 7, 2015)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #264,906 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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This is the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam war and the dislocation to America told from an Asian perspective, and a story non-Asian Americans should read if only for that viewpoint. But there is so much more: brilliant writing and beautiful prose that is often hilarious, and always thought-provoking. "I calmed the tremor in my gut. I was in close quarters with some representative of the most dangerous creature in the history of the world, the white man in a suit." Or, "you must claim America, she said. America will not give itself to you. If you do not claim America, if America is not in your heart, America will throw you into a concentration camp, or a reservation or a plantation."
This is not an easy book to read--and no, not because there aren't quotation marks. God help some of these reviewers if they ever pick up Virginia Woolf or James Joyce. At times though the scenes of torture and rape are sickening and the author's pov about American hegemony (cultural and political) is going to disturb many. But it is challenging in the very best way. The Sympathizer does what great literature is supposed to do--force us out of our comfort zone to rethink assumptions. This wonderful, disturbing, challenging novel will do more than that--it will affirm something indomitable and essential about us all--a desire to carry on, and to live.
The problem with the story is that it is not the revelation the author thinks it is. In an interview in the back of the book Nguyen says he hopes the novel will make people "uncomfortable in a good way." However, I doubt that many of his readers harbor any illusions about America's involvement in the Vietnam war. Yes, we dropped Napalm. Yes, we killed kids. Yes, we taught the South Vietnamese "advanced interrogation techniques" (i.e. a more sophisticated form of torture). This is not news. In addition, Nguyen's readers surely know that the South Vietnamese government was cruel and hopelessly corrupt, and that when the North took over, they were even worse, because they were cruel and fanatics who tried to "re-educate" people.
The ending is a bit of a let-down because the narrator ends up with a cosmic, comic insight into the universe and politics that really isn't all that insightful. I would still recommend this novel for its style and for the personality of the narrator. But not for its supposed revelations about history or the cosmos.
The mole (never named) was educated in the United States before returning to Vietnam and signing on as a Viet Cong spy. He accompanies the general to the United States after the fall of Saigon and continues his espionage work there. He ultimately returns to Vietnam in an ill-fated attempt to establish a counter-insurgency on behalf of the general.
I found the novel to be highly educational, as I’d never read such an account of the Vietnam War from the viewpoint of the Vietnamese. The refugee experience was largely unknown to me. While the final 50-100 pages are among the most powerful, containing acts of psychological and physical torture, they are presented in an almost stream of consciousness narrative which can become tiresome to wade through.
Certainly a worthy novel, however I can imagine that many might not enjoy it.
Still the book tells a unique story while it is telling an everywhere story, and it is telling it in prose that is so beautifully written, it is almost poetry. And to have such a poetic soul with such a dark and at times, grim tale, is magic indeed!
Top reviews from other countries
None of it comes together very well. None of the women are written with anything but contempt - the older no-strings nympho, the General's hag wife, the manic dream pixie daughter (whom our narrator gleefully buggers after his first homicide) and the rape victim. It's all fairly retrograde.
IF YOU ARE WORRIED ABOUT SPOILERS, STOP READING THE REST OF THE REVIEW.
The novel begins with the flight out of Saigon as the Viet Cong close in on the city in April 1975.
The unnamed narrator (I will call him Thanh in this review) darts backwards and forwards in his reminiscences. At the beginning there is a hint (to be fleshed out much later) that most of the book is actually a written confession he is making, in prison, to a Viet Cong Commandant. (It is hard to believe that such a confession should be so long – said to be 295 pages long - and so elaborate and sophisticated in style.)
Thanh is the illegitimate son of a Vietnamese woman and a French priest, and he is very sensitive about being called a bastard. It gives him a split personality, and he tells us at the beginning that he had been a double agent for many years, though he never tells us what his reasons were. He had been attached to the staff of a Vietnamese General who had worked closely with a CIA officer called Claude. Thanh had taken part in interrogations of Viet Cong prisoners. At the same time Tanh had worked with Man, a communist and an old school friend. He is equally friendly with another old schoolmate, Bon, who was fervently anti-Communist.
Thanh organized, with bribes, the flight on a cargo plane of the General and 91 others (including Bon) from Saigon airport. The Communists are bombarding the airport; but, after horrendous scenes, they are airborne and eventually arrive in California. As a younger man, Thanh had studied at the University of Los Angeles, and a former professor of his got him appointed to a clerical position there. He shared an apartment with Bon, who was employed as a part-time janitor by a local church.
He sent secret messages to Man, reporting on unhappy time the Vietnamese exiles had in the United States. (Throughout, the descriptions of this community, now mostly in the humblest of jobs and saturated with nostalgia for Saigon, are very extensive.) When the General, reduced to running a liquor store, discovered (how, it is not clear) that there was a spy among the former soldiers in the refugee community, Thanh, in a panic, suggests it could be a major on the General’s staff. He and Bon are then ordered by the General and by Claude to eliminate him. Thanh feels bad about killing an innocent man, but he aids Bon to do the deed. And the dead major will, ghostlike, haunt his thoughts thereafter.
There is a long interlude in the Philippines: the General had got Thanh to be the consultant to a Hollywood director who was making a propaganda film there about the Vietnam War. Thanh was nearly killed in a scene right at the end of the film.
He returned to the United States, where he General was training a score of veterans to join a camp in Thailand of Vietnamese veterans who were preparing to liberate Vietnam. Thanh passed on that knowledge to his communist contacts. One of those who would go to that camp was Bon. Thanh wanted to protect him, and asked the General for permission to go as well. The permission was granted at a price: Sonny, a left-wing Vietnamese journalist who had also been a college friend in America with Thanh, had found out about the training and had published a piece about it. The General now hinted to Thanh that something should be done about Sonny if Thanh were to be allowed to go. Encouraged by Bon, Thanh kills Sonny – another ghost to haunt him.
Two days later, he and Bon flew to Bangkok and then proceeded to the camp on the border of Thailand and Laos. On their first reconnaissance patrol, they ran into an ambush. Most of the patrol were killed, but Thanh and Bon were taken prisoner.
There is a fifth of the book to come. So far the story has been easy to follow; but this last fifth is the most difficult part, and, as I said in the first paragraph of this review, I found much of it maddeningly obscure.
Thanh has to write for the Commandant of the prison a confession which is to be part of his re-education. The Commandant is never satisfied with his account: though Thanh is a communist, the confession is too western, with no appreciation of the writings of Ho Chi Minh and Mao Tse Tung. What he had done while working with the General also counted against him.
The remote Commissar in charge of the prison camp is particularly interested in Thanh’s case: we will find out why. There are horrible scenes of mental and gruesome memories of physical torture, interspersed with long, hard-to-believe reflections; and I repeat that I found these scenes in any case hard to make sense of. Clearly the judges who awarded this book the Pulitzer Prize will not have found it so difficult or so obscure.
The author was born in Vietnam, left as a young child, now a professor of English in California. My feeling is that the author has modelled his book on literature rather than lived experience. This may explain why it was garlanded with prestigious awards.
Indeed the narrator explicitly relates his admiration for Graham Greene, and that particular writer frequently came to my mind anyway. It is fine to write after the style of Greene, Conrad, Koestler etc. but a novel has to be populated with credible characters. The novel is propelled – though not at any great pace – by the decisions of the main character, but to me none of his actions figured. He felt more like a chess piece played by the writer in a game of ideas.
The best I could say is that it could be “studied” and I daresay it is given the academic position of the author. A quick read through and then aspects considered in a series of weekly seminars.