[Review] The Sympathizer - Viet Thanh Nguyen

Title of Book:
The Sympathizer
Author: Viet Thanh Nguyen
Publisher: Grove Press
Publication Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Paperback
Pages: 384

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Sympathizer is a Vietnam War novel unlike any other. The narrator, one of the most arresting of recent fiction, is a man of two minds and divided loyalties, a half-French half-Vietnamese communist sleeper agent living in America after the end of the war.
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. But, unbeknownst to the general, this captain is an undercover operative for the communists, who instruct him to add his own name to the list and accompany the general to America. As the general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, the captain continues to observe the group, sending coded letters to an old friend who is now a higher-up within the communist administration. Under suspicion, the captain is forced to contemplate terrible acts in order to remain undetected. And when he falls in love, he finds that his lofty ideals clash violently with his loyalties to the people close to him, a contradiction that may prove unresolvable.
A gripping spy novel, a moving story of love and friendship, and a layered portrayal of a young man drawn into extreme politics, The Sympathizer examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.


The Sympathizer opens with the fall of Saigon in 1975. We follow a general and his captain as they’re trying to fly out of Vietnam to America. Little did he know, his trustee captain is a double agent who observed and reported what happened to the Vietnam communist. After they managed to flee the country, we then follow them as they settling in as refugees in America. All the while rebuilding forces to take back Vietnam from the communist. The captain is actually the one who narrates the story. We know early on that he’s a double agent and while living in America, he’s been sending coded messages to his ‘aunt’ in France. It’s actually his observation on the general which sent to the communist in Vietnam. To summarize it simply, this book chronicles the captain’s story as he’s struggling with his multiple identities.

In my opinion, this book has one of the most memorable first sentence in books. It opens with “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces”. That sentence sets the tone of the book. It tells us what kind of dilemma that the characters will face in the book. It’s also one of the themes discussed in the book. The narrator is always referred to as the captain. As a reader, I don’t know his name. It could be intentional as a way to further dilute his identities in the story. The captain is actually half French and half Vietnamese. One time he said it himself that he’s too Asian to be a French but too Westernized to be a Vietnamese. He never really feel like he’s belong anywhere. Because of this, it seems to me that the captain often feels like he has no identity. This is shown in his dialogue with the Department Chair in the college where he works in the US. The Department Chair suggested the Captain to see this as a strength. However, the captain feels difficulty to accept this because this dualism also apparent in his life as a spy. As a closeted communist, he has to act in front of the General and other refugees. He’s been forced to hide himself until he’s not sure who he is anymore. This is the conflict that’s often surfaced in the book.

Another interesting thing to point out from this book is how it revolves around the Vietnam war. We’ve seen Vietnam War featured many times in films and books but most of them are told from the perspective of Americans. This one is told from the perspective of an actual Vietnamese. This book also not afraid to critique the way America portray other cultures. In one subplot, the captain is asked as a consultant in a Hollywood film about the Vietnam war. For a film set in Vietnam, about Vietnam war, ironically, the Vietnamese characters do not have intelligible speaking parts.

To tell you the truth, I don't know what is it with this book but it's always been difficult for me to pick it up. Even just to start it out. Although when I was reading it, I actually enjoyed it. It's not like this book has a thousand pages or written in difficult Old English language. In fact, I like the writing and often found the sentences lyrical and funny. One of the example of the sentences that I like is this: “While he was an expert by necessity, I was a novice by choice, despite having had my opportunities”. Weirdly enough, the same goes to writing the review. It’s not like I don’t have anything to say about this book, because I do. The Sympathizer is thought-provoking and it gives me some insight on one of important historic moments. Maybe because it’s about war that’s somewhat recent? Even until know I still can’t figure out what makes me reluctant to pick it up. However, don’t make this put you off from reading this book if you’re actually interested to pick it up. The ending is left open. So if you’re not into that, you might want to reconsider. I know later on that Nguyen published the sequel of this book in March 2021, called The Committed, but seeing my track record with this book I don’t think I’ll pick up the sequel. I’m okay with the ending as it is. Again, if you’re interested in the premise of this book, despite what I said earlier, I think you should read this book.

Even so, I said, do you not think it would be a little more believable, a little more realistic, a little more authentic, for a movie set in a certain country for the people in that country to have something to say, instead of having your screenplay direct, as it does now, ‘Cut to villagers speaking in their own language’?  

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