Book Notes #10: “The Sympathizer” (By Viet Thanh Nguyen)

by | Aug 12, 2022

An incredibly well-written novel about the Vietnam War and its aftermath.

I finally read a fiction book. I wanted to read something different from self-help and meditations. And I discovered that this Pulitzer Prize winner on sale in the Kindle store. So, why not?

The Sympathizer
By Viet Thanh Nguen

Here are a few takeaways:

  • Another world
    I don’t know much about the Vietnam War. In American history class, by the time you get to the 1960s and 1970s, it’s the final sprint. So, the Vietnam War battles are not etched into my my memory as those of WWII or other battles.While I’ve been to Vietnam and written about my travels in my book Coined, I’ve learned about the Vietnam War through art – literature and movies.The Sympathizer is an intrepid attempt at showcasing the multiple sides of the Vietnam War, and the complexity of the view points (and doctrines) that fueled the armed conflict.
  • The confessor
    The protagonist is a nameless confessor. He has been captured. And he’s recounting his life story as a confession to his captors. The protagonist embodies the hyphenated. He was born to a French Priest and Vietnamese lady. He’s a Communist mole who is implanted with the South Vietnamese, who then becomes a refugee in the United States. He is of many worlds.

    They…fabricated a portmanteau word to describe my kind, the Amerasian…

    Ah, the Amerasian, forever caught between worlds and never knowing where he belongs!

    It’s this multiplicity of viewpoints that makes the book a fascinating read. He’s able to jump from his opinion to seeing himself and the world through the eyes of others.

    We genuflected, but in actuality we were atheists who had chosen communism over God.


  • Stations of life
    Prominent military men fled for the United States where they had a different station in life. For example, the General owns a liquor store and his wife starts a restaurant.This struck me as something many refugees have to go through. They start over again. But the way Nguen juxtaposes these old-and-new professions is quite glaring. The War was over, but among refugees it wasn’t yet. It had to be recast.

    Leaving for America was not desertion, we claimed. This was strategic retreat…

    The General had finally conceded to a basic tenet of the American Dream. Not only must he make a living, he must also pay for it.

    The confessor communicates via letter to his “aunt” in France. But he writes in invisible ink to his friend in Vietnam. This is how they communicate instructions and responses.


  • The power of art
    The protagonist is invited to be a script consultant on a movie The Hamlet about the Vietnam War which is being filmed in the Philippines. He knows that the movies can be propaganda and endeavors to get the author to cast real Vietnamese who have actual lines in the movie. The protagonist succeeds in getting some token representation but it’s not meaningful. And he almost dies in an explosion in the fake cemetery on the set.

    Long after this war is forgotten, when its existence is a paragraph in a schoolbook students won’t even bother to read, and everyone who survived it is dead, their bodies dust, their memories atoms, their emotions no longer in motion, this work of art will still shine so brightly it will not just be about the war but it will be the war.

  • Quotables
    Some noteworthy lines.

    Despair may be thick, but friendship’s thicker.


    But to a bureaucrat paper was never just paper. Paper was life!


    I began to realize that true revolution also involved sexual liberation.


    As Hegel said, tragedy was not the conflict between right and wrong but right and right, a dilemma none of us who wanted to participate in history could escape…


    we being living reminders of their stinging defeat. We threatened the sanctity and symmetry of a white and black America whose yin and yang racial politics left no room for any other color, particularly that of pathetic little yellow-skinned people pickpocketing the American purse.


    Hollywood’s function as the launcher of the intercontinental ballistic missile of Americanization


    Mao said that art and literature were crucial to revolution. Conversely, he warned, art and literature could also be tools of domination.


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