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. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong. The Sympathizer is the story of this captain: a man brought up by an absent French father and a poor Vietnamese mother, a man who went to university in America, but returned to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s astonishing novel takes us inside the mind of this double agent, a man whose lofty ideals necessitate his betrayal of the people closest to him. A gripping spy novel, an astute exploration of extreme politics, and a moving love story, The Sympathizer explores a life between two worlds and examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.
Comments from the judges
‘I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces’, declares the beguiling narrator of this devastating tour de force on Vietnam’s 20th century tragedy and the role colonial powers played in it. At the fall of Saigon, rendered in richly atmospheric detail and poignant scenes, the narrator flees with a number of other sympathizers of the old regime, including his immediate boss, ‘the General’. In Los Angeles, he attempts to make a new life for himself in the company of a friend who has lost his entire family while boarding the plane in Saigon. But in addition to his cultural duality – an absent French father and a long-suffering Vietnamese mother – he is also a double agent, loyal to his Communist masters yet sympathetic to the dramas of his fellow Vietnamese exiles in an incomprehending, crudely patronising America. ‘So it was that we soaped ourselves in sandess and we rinsed ourselves with hope, and for all that we believed almost every rumor we heard, almost all of us refused to believe that our nation was dead.’ Written out of rage, grief and love, and also conceived with unparalleled expertise of cultural and political nuances, this extraordinary novel combines gorgeously vivid and suspenseful story-telling with an acidic expose of American colonial war-mongering. It is the masterpiece on Vietnam – and from Vietnam – that the world has been waiting for.
NOMINATING LIBRARY COMMENTS
The Sympathizer is dark humor at its finest, and an expert portrayal of the duality in the life of a man “with two minds”: that of Vietnamese, and American, that of a secret agent of the Viet Cong and officer in the South Vietnamese Army. The novel is presented as a coerced jail cell confessional by a double-agent returned to Vietnam after years in the United States.
The unnamed narrator in Nguyen’s exceptional debut novel is working for the South Vietnamese Army, but he’s also an undercover agent for the Viet Cong. A man of “two faces,”, sympathetic to the Vietnamese on both sides of the conflict, he saves his derision for the Americans, especially their perceptions of Asians. Nguyen’s darkly comic take on the Vietnamese refugee experience is poignantly funny and filled with irony and insight.
As the Vietnam War and U.S. involvement come to an inconclusive end in 1975, the author perceptively portrays the conflicts which existed within the Vietnamese people. There were those who supported the United States and those who supported the North Vietnamese which created lasting wounds.