The Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen |   Fiction


I struggled to finish this book, and perused the last 150 pages.  Though the author has some wonderful wry humor, I did not care for his story-telling and his character development.  Every time I opened this  book, I literally saw the main character, an unnamed half-French half-Vietnamese protagonist, as a piece of tissue paper.  He was so thin and flimsy, you could see right though him and he had no there, there.  I found him shallow, especially given the nature of the story he was trying to tell, and not a bit likeable.  My eye surgeon, Dr. Alul, saw me reading this book in her office on Monday and she said “Do you like it?  It is pretty depressing.  I had a really hard time getting through it.”  I found that interesting.  I had not thought of it as depressing, but I guess it really is.  And I am not enjoying “depressing” right now.  After that conversation, I hit the last 100 pages and, though there is some redemption, the further you read, the more profoundly depressing the tale.

This is a fictionalized story of the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam war, and the refugees who make it to America. We follow our main character, who is a Captain in the military and a spy, as he attempts to acclimate to America, or, perhaps more precisely, to not acclimate to America.  We read of the struggles of the refugees, the culture clashes, the challenges, and a bit of their successes.

I found it very hard to believe that a Vietnamese refugee would arrive in America and want to (page 231) “Reconcile, return, rebuild.”   I am perhaps quite naïve about the refugee experience, so I did a bit of research.  Yes, I am still VERY naïve about the refugee experience, but here are some facts I gathered:

Two million Vietnamese left their country after the fall of Saigon.  120,000 of them came to the United States.  Of the 120,000 who came here, 1500, (1.25%) chose to “reconcile, return, rebuild” and returned to Vietnam.  Of those, most were held in “reeducation camps” where they experienced prison conditions, forced ideological change, brutality, violence, humiliation and, for many, death.

I cannot recommend this despondent book, however, if you read it, I will be very pleased to read some other views!

2 responses on “The Sympathizer

  1. Daniel Murphy

    I had a very different take than Andrea on this book, a book that I would rate at five stars even in a four star system. In the 80’s, my wife (an elementary school teacher at the time) and I (family physician) worked extensively with the Hmong refugees from Laos, and met not a few Vietnamese refugees as well. My point of view is heavily influenced by that experience.

    For starters, I would say that you cannot comprehend this book unless you are prepared to leave the country of your birth (if you’re American) at the door, and step into a completely different one. There has been a dramatic dearth of novels documenting what the Southeast Asian (Vietnamese, Thai, Laotion, Cambodian) experience of what Americans call the Vietnam War. Even Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American, though it looks at Vietnam (during the French occupation) through a more complex lens, focuses on the Western perspective. The Sympathizer (the title is at the least a double entendre, and arguably a triple entendre) offers an unparalleled window into the mind and soul of a Vietnamese man who is not so much immoral, or amoral, as he is a person living in a world (one created by the dictates of American foreign policy) in which the words morality, amorality, immorality have NO relevance, and where simple survival of self and family has become the primary goal. The refugee families that my wife and I became friends with (and maintain relationships with today) described the world so deftly painted in The Sympathizer over and over. When a superpower intervenes in the affairs of a substantially less powerful nation by applying almost unlimited funds and military might, the scenario in this book plays out regardless of geography or century. Both the biography of T.E. Lawrence, and the more recent book Lawrence IN Arabia, give a similar view into a culture foreign to the West, and portrary the similarly devastating effects on the ethical options of the inhabitants of the affected Middle East.

    There is a REASON that this book won the Pulitzer Prize, and it is related to the accuracy both of the history described, and the exquisitely portrayed dilemmas that intelligent, educated, principled Vietnamese found themselves immersed in as a superpower’s political goals steamrolled over a culture far older, and far deeper, than our own relatively brief American ascent.

    It is very difficult to step out of one’s own culture, and the particular version of history that has been reinforced by that culture. Anthropologists call this ethnocentrism. The Sympathizer is an open invitation to cast it aside by attempting to step inside the main character’s point of view.

    Andrea, and Dr. Atul, characterize the book as depressing. Depressing, well…..the 58,000 American deaths in the Vietnam War were absolutely dwarfed by the 3.3 MILLION Vietnamese deaths (including North and South civilian and soldier deaths). A time period in which the leaders of South Vietnam were installed by, and then assassinated by, CIA implemented U.S. policy. An era in which the collapse of the war led to the Killing Fields of Cambodia (over a million deaths) and the genocidal efforts in Laos to exterminate the Hmong (estimates of several hundred thousand deaths). The Sympathizer is an exquisitely researched story (hence the Pulitzer Prize) that documents the true cost of a dominant culture (in this case, the U.S.) imposing its political will on a less developed nation. It’s a story that the U.S. has reprised in Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, and most recently, the disastrous interventions in Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq. The author brings to life, in my opinion with extraordinarily vivid vision, the cultural and individual tragedy that results from geopolitical adventuring based on the notion that OUR culture/system is superior to another’s. Depressing? You goddam betcha. Which is what makes it one of the finest anti-war, anti-imperialism books written in decades.

    1. Andrea Sigetich Post author

      I respect and love your educated view of this book, Dan. Thank you for your comments, and I hope my readers take them to heart. This is an important book … regardless of one’s current ability to consume its message. My ability right now is thwarted .. to the extent that I found this novel unbelievable. Dan’s comments help me to see the blinders I had on while reading The Sympathizer. This is EXACTLY why we all continue to read, take to heart, assess, articulate, and comment. Others’ views?