The Sympathizer – by Viet Thanh Nguyen


After my book club discussed  this wonderful book, I decided to post my thoughts about it today.

A half French, half Vietnamese child felt out of place in both cultures. He works as a communist double agent during the Vietnam War. Living in America after the fall of Saigon, he continues reporting back to his Communist leaders in Vietnam, from a South Vietnam viewpoint. This is the premise of “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

I must say, because of the nonlinear time lines and it’s linguist- prose, I found the novel hard to follow…..for me. But, a deep meaning can be picked up from more than surface reading. I wanted to understand the Vietnam war, so I researched online and read several articles that touched on the subject. I found the film, by director Rory Kennedy “Last Days Of Vietnam” truly helpful as to what happened there. Ken Burns documentary also added weight to the of the turmoil of the Civil War between the South and North countries.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s  story is told in the first person by a narrator called the Captain who remains unnamed  throughout the book. The narration is in the form of a confession written down for a military authority figure who captures the narrator in the end. He wants to learn about the narrators divided sense of self.( I have a spoiler coming so finish reading the book before you continue reading my review)

He is divided because of his mixed heritage and the treatment there of. He was born to a unmarried Vietnamese woman who had an affair with a French priest, making him a bastard child and a mixed race outsider to everyone.

As conditions deteriorate in Saigon, the South Vietnamese General decides to flee to the United States with some staff, a trustee named Bon, the narrator, and his friend called Man. Only the privileged and informed secured a place on very few planes going out to the US. Hundreds sit and wait to be rescued by planes that never came.

The narrator is a communist and secretly watches and reports actions of the General. Sent to a refugee camp in Los Angeles, the narrator hides his communist identity.

The General begins to suspect a traitor among them, so the narrator suggests it may be the major, in the Generals company.  The general orders the assassination of the major, with the help of Bon, and the narrator.

An American politician known as the Congressman, joins forces with the General, making plans of gaining control from the Vietnamese Communists. They talk about regulating Hollywood movies to make them more accurate and culturally sensitive to the Vietnamese war experience. The narrator soon realizes he has failed at changing the direction of the film. The movie failed to show the true conflict of the war.

Much later, the narrator and Bon take a flight to Thailand where they see the Viet Cong have gained much control over their country. Eventually the forces are too powerful for the narrator and Bon. They are captured and brought to a reeducation camp.

It is here that the narrator is forced to write his full confession until the commander and the commissar approve it. He continues to rewrite it over and over because the commissar is not satisfied that he is reflecting his Vietnamese heritage.  The commissar is revealed to be the narrators old friend, the Man, who was severally disfigured by napalm.

His friend the Man, is upset that the narrator returned to Vietnam. He decides to torture him to force his remembrance of what was left out of his confession. Stripped naked and tortured, he begs to be freed, but is told it will only happen when- he remembers what he failed to confess.

He finally remembers that a female communist agent was forced to endure atrocities in front of him without him intervening in any way. He understood that watching a rape and torture without helping, made his work as a double agent meaningless. He saw one corrupt regime replaced by another, with no progress made. This realization further caused him to feel split in two, between two worlds. After accepting his confession, the Man collected bribes from women in the camp to send the narrator and Bon back to the United States.

The narrator and Bon are taken by boat back to America, which makes them like the thousands of  other boat people forced to flee their home country of Vietnam.

By far, “The Sympathizer” plays out the story of a man of two minds. A man whose political beliefs clash with his individual loyalties and culture. This is indeed, a well crafted debut novel.


Viet Thanh Nguyen ——-holding his 2016 Fiction Prize for “The Sympathizer”

Next Review: Neighborly, BY Ellie Monago


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