Skip to main content

The Sympathizer


The Sympathizer

“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps, not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds,” confesses Captain, the incognito narrator in this riveting debut novel that opens with the imminent capture of Saigon in April 1975. While serving as a special aide to a high-ranking South Vietnamese general, the Communist mole secretly chronicles the movements of his superior and fellow countrymen as they narrowly escape the falling republic, seek shelter in refugee camps and tent cities, and then attempt to rebuild their lives in Southern California.

Although the undercover Captain is a resident expert in American studies (having spent six idyllic years as a scholarship student and spy-in-training at a West Coast college during the ’60s), he maintains a love-hate relationship with the United States. Fourteen years of war transform Vietnam into an American franchise managed by corrupt leaders, “kept alive only through the intravenous drip of American aid,” while Saigon’s streets become populated by a demimonde --- a parade of paupers, street urchins, military amputees, prostitutes, elderly beggars and young widows.

"THE SYMPATHIZER is not only a masterly espionage novel, but also a seminal work of 21st-century American fiction."

On assignment in California, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s protagonist adopts an even darker and humorous perspective. He praises “America, land of supermarkets and superhighways, of supersonic jets and Superman, of supercarriers and the Super Bowl” in one breath, then sardonically asks, “Was there ever a country that coined so many ‘super’ terms from the federal bank of its narcissism, was not only superconfident but also truly powerful, that would not be satisfied until it locked every nation of the world into a full nelson and made it cry Uncle Sam?”

While feeling pity for his compatriots --- a hapless, homesick fraternity of vanquished soldiers from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam who are reduced to working as busboys, janitors, gardeners, security guards and welfare beneficiaries, and plot to take their country back --- the double agent relays the following secret message to his higher-ups: “Nothing [is] happening among the exiles but the tearing of hair and the gnashing of teeth.” Grief-stricken and “mired in a profound funk,” the former general drowns his sorrows in cheap alcohol, while the captain’s childhood friend Bon is inconsolable. The latter asks, “What am I living for? A life in an apartment? That’s not a home. It’s a jail cell without bars,” adding, “We’re not men anymore.”

The primary character Captain is complicatedly complex. The Communist double agent skillfully navigates the world of the exiles, expressing heartfelt brotherly love and feeling a genuine camaraderie with his peers. But beneath the warm exterior, he is a calculating actor, capable of justifying cold-blooded murder. This man of contradictions is, all at once, an efficient assassin, a world-weary misfit, a haunted antihero and a hopeful revolutionary.

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.

Reviewed by Miriam Tuliao on May 1, 2015

The Sympathizer
by Viet Thanh Nguyen

  • Publication Date: April 12, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802124941
  • ISBN-13: 9780802124944