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The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

December 27, 2017


With the fall of Saigon, the narrator of The Sympathizer, a North Vietnamese spy embedded within the upper ranks of the South Vietnamese, maintains his cover and evacuates to America with the General he advises. There, he keeps ties with two childhood friends, one who stayed in Vietnam and one who came with him to the U.S. He continues to live with dual identities split along several fronts—some cultural, some political (splits that would get him killed if discovered).

The plot has the complexity and excitement of a spy story, the dislocation of an immigrant novel and the biting political satire of Catch-22 or Vonnegut’s Mother Night (plus both Mother Night and part of The Sympathizer are flashbacks written as confessions from prison). At one point, the narrator is enlisted as an advisor on a film about the war which, similar to Apocalypse Now, is to be filmed in the Philippines. But he soon realizes the arrogant American director has no interest in telling anything but a typical American war film. The narrator observes, “This was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors.”

It is easy to get lost in the twists and turns of the plot, where the narrator’s personal and political loyalties often conflict. Lines are blurred, morality muddled, alliances unclear. It is, one would think, an apt way of telling a story about the complicated Vietnam War.

The Sympathizer won the 2016 Pullitzer Prize for fiction.

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