Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Books and Arts: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen speaks with Book and Arts’ host, Michael Cathcart, about his debut novel The Sympathizer, a gripping and masterly novel that examines the legacies of the Vietnam war. Listen to the full episode on ABC’s Radio National or read the transcript below.

radio national

The Sympathizer is a gripping and masterly new novel by Vietnamese-American author Viet Thanh Nguyen.

The book opens with people scrambling to evacuate Saigon as the city falls to the communists in 1975.

In the midst of the shouting and tumult is a South Vietnamese army captain; what the terrified people around him don’t know is that he is a communist spy.

Viet Thanh Nguyen is an Associate professor at the University of Southern California, where he teaches a course on war and memory. The Sympathizer is his debut novel.



Michael C.: Well, we start this morning with The Sympathizer, which is a gripping and masterly book. It’s by Viet Thanh Nguyen, and it opens with frightened people scrambling to evacuate Saigon as the city falls to Communists in 1975. That’s 40 years ago this year. Now, in the midst of all this shouting and tumult is a South Vietnamese army captain, and what the terrified people around him don’t know is that he’s actually a Communist spy. Well, the writer, Viet Thanh Nguyen, is an associate professor at the University of Southern California, where he teaches some really fascinating-looking courses, including one on war and memory. And this stunningly good book is his first novel. Viet, welcome.

Viet Thanh N.: Hi, Michael. Thanks for having me. It’s a delight.

Michael C.: So good to have you here. So, let’s talk about your narrator. I guess we can call him the captain. He doesn’t have a name. We’ll call him the captain. He’s an outsider, and he’s the result of the liaison between a French priest and a teenage girl in rural Vietnam. And his divided self is really confirmed in the school playground. Can you tell us about that moment?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, you know, I was thinking a lot of the experiences of people of mixed race background in Vietnam being colonized by France, and then the Americans had come. And the French and the Americans had left a very substantial Eurasian and then Amerasian population, and everything I’d heard about their experiences of mixed race children had been horrible. The Vietnamese were racist, and the Americans and the French weren’t that much better. So a lot of what these children endured was on the streets and on the playgrounds where they were subjected to racist taunts and abuses. So, a very formative moment for the captain as a young person is being told by his schoolmates that he doesn’t fit in. He’s neither one thing nor the other. He’s monstrous, and it upsets him terribly. And it’s a moment that scars him deeply, but it’s also a moment that drives him to his first act of violence when he fights back against the schoolyard bully who’s leading that taunting.

Michael C.: Yeah. And as a result of all this, he forms a bond with two other boys, which really is a bond that stays with him through his life.

Viet Thanh N.: Yeah, I was thinking very much about how for a Vietnamese man in particular, the bonds of brotherhood, especially blood brotherhood, where you swear your allegiances to people who may not be part of your family, are very important. So, the core of the story is that these three young men are in high school together in Vietnam and they’re all idealists. They all don’t fit into conformist culture in various ways. And they swear allegiance to each other to defend each other against school yard bullies and the like. And then history takes its course, and they end up on different sides, although they don’t all know it.

Viet Thanh N.: Our narrator, the captain, and one of his blood brothers, Man, secretly swear to be Communists, while their other blood brother, Ban, stays true to the South Vietnamese or Republican cause. And he, of course, doesn’t know that his two other blood brothers have basically become traders to his own cause. And it’s these underlying tensions between blood brothers who are betraying each other or who are secretly opposed to each other that drives a lot of the drama in the book.

Michael C.: It certainly does. Before we go on to explore the story, do you mind if we talk a little about you and learn where you’re coming from as the teller of this tale? Because you were born in Vietnam. How did you get to the USA in 1975?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, I had one of those very dramatic escape stories, which is not very dramatic when you compare it to a lot of other Vietnamese refugees. Basically everybody I know who’s a Vietnamese refugee who made it out of the country, whether it’s 1975 or through the late ’70s and ’80s had horrifying stories, and ours is relatively tame. I was … we were living in a small town called [inaudible 00:03:25], which is in the central highlands. And it’s famous for coffee, but also for being the first town overrun in March 1975 at the beginning of the Communist invasion. And the town was cut off from communication, which was bad because my father was actually in Saigon on business. Left my mother, my adopted sister, my older brother, and myself. And my mother made a life and death decision that she was going to flee that town, take my brother and myself, but leave my adopted sister behind to take care of the family property because she thought we were coming back.

Viet Thanh N.: The war had seesawed back and forth and she didn’t think the war was really going to be done, which of course it was. So, I didn’t see my adopted sister again for nearly 30 years. My mother walked downhill a few hundred kilometers with myself and my brother through apparently a really horrifying landscape of refugees and dead soldiers. Made it to Nanchang. We caught a boat to Saigon, found my father, and a month later, we had to flee again on another boat when Saigon was taken by the Communists. And that’s how we got to the United States.

Michael C.: So you were four. Do you remember this?

Viet Thanh N.: I don’t remember. I mean, I have some flashes of memory, but I have no idea if they’re reliable. I told my brother, I remember we were on a boat and the sailors were shooting at another little boat. And he said, no, that didn’t happen. So he could be right. I could be right. But really, the beginning of my narrative memory happened when I got to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which was where we were resettled. And I was four years old ,and I was separated from my parents. To leave the refugee camp, all the Vietnamese refugees had to have sponsors, but there was no one willing to take all four of us. So my parents went to one sponsor, my brother went to one sponsor, and I went into another. And for me, that was, at four years old, really traumatic. And that’s an experience that I think really shaped me.

Michael C.: Well, after the thriller-style opening, I did think, oh no, the book’s going to be a terrible anticlimax. We’re going to get to the safety of the USA and all this excitement’s going to stop. But actually, the moral dilemmas become deeper there because the captain is surrounded by people for whom, as you say, the war has not ended.

Viet Thanh N.: Well, I think for most of the world, they … when they think about the Vietnam War, they think about April 1975, the fall, or the liberation of Saigon, these images that were circulated all over the world, and that’s what the first 50 pages refers to. And then everybody stops thinking about Vietnam and what happened to the Vietnamese people, either in Vietnam or the ones who fled the country. And so, in the novel, I really did want to delve into the fact that this was not only a war that was for other people and the spectacles of Hollywood and TV and all of that, but for the Vietnamese people of all sides, the war continued informally.

Viet Thanh N.: And for the Vietnamese who had fought with the Americans and who had fled then to the United States, into Australia, into France, and so on, they carried those political divisions, and hatreds ,and passions with them. And wherever they settled, they continued to be deeply attached to that past, and oftentimes, either to continue fighting the war with the Vietnamese, the Vietnam War, fighting with each other in the new places they found themselves. And that’s the kind of drama that the middle part of the novel deals with.

Michael C.: I live in Melbourne, in the south of Australia, and there’s a big Vietnamese community here. And I can remember in the ’70s, it was widely said that the Vietnamese community, who of course were from the South, that’s the people who had to flee, that they were kind of regrouping to re-invade Vietnam. And I just imagined that was sort of … that was just gossip. But you’re saying it really is plausible that people were thinking about how they could retake their country?

Viet Thanh N.: Oh, it was very plausible. And when I was growing up in the 1980s, I would go to the community celebrations for Tet, the new year. And I would see exhibitions showing pictures of guys in jungle camouflage living in the Thai jungle, training themselves to counterinvade or take back the homeland. And the purpose of that was to raise money for them. And there were rumors that the very first international pho chain, the beef noodle soup thing that people all over the world love, it was started to fund this revolution or this effort to take the country back.

Michael C.: Hey, but I’ve poured thousands of dollars into the revelation recall, as it turns out, eating soup.

Viet Thanh N.: Yeah. And you didn’t know that part of it was funding the revolution, right?

Michael C.: Yeah.

Viet Thanh N.: But so, I mean, and how much of it was really true, how much of it was false, is really debatable. I mean, there’s not much research on it, but really, there was that movement. There really were guys in Thailand. They really did try to invade through Laos, and they met a terrible end in Laos. How large they were, no one really knows for sure. I mean, the people who did it say there were thousands, and other people say there were hundreds. And in the end, it all just fell apart in the 1980s.

Michael C.: On our end, this is Books and Arts with Michael C.. And my guest this morning is the American scholar and author Viet Thanh Nguyen. And we’re talking about his dark and sometimes funny debut novel, The Sympathizer, which I just think is marvelous. If you’re looking for a book to read this summer, this really is one to put on your list. So, the captain … we were talking about the captain, he’s our central character … he has to maintain his cover once he gets back to America, which means that in this peacetime country, he ends up having to assassinate a poor, harmless man who used to be a major in the South Vietnamese army. And that’s a shocking moment. What can we say about that? Just to give a sense to the listener of what’s entailed in that.

Viet Thanh N.: Well, our narrator, our captain, has gone deep. He’s deep undercover. He has to do whatever he can to maintain that cover while he also tries to subvert the South Vietnamese that he’s spying on. And so, when his boss, the general, who’s a paranoid man, sees a Communist spy in this innocent major and orders our narrator to … our captain to kill him, the captain can’t figure a way out of that dilemma. And so, he has to make a choice between two situations. One, he can either kill the captain and maintain the cover, or he can not kill the captain and basically lose the general’s trust and not be able to fulfill his job. So he does what he thinks he has to do, partially based on real life events. There were these kinds of assassinations happening in the United States that were never solved.

Viet Thanh N.: And but more to the point, it gets to the big question of the novel, what is to be done? Our narrator, our captain, is confronted by that question. He confronts himself with that question on a regular basis. He believes in history, he believes in revolution, he believes in action. And unfortunately, anybody who is a person of action who does what has to be done has to deal with the moral consequences that oftentimes, it can be not just unsavory, but immoral, contradictory, deeply problematic. And that’s the quagmire of history that anybody who believes they can change history finds themselves in and … as our captain does.

Michael C.: So is this book partly a caution against the danger of revolution?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, in some senses, yes, because obviously, the Vietnamese revolution was successful in its short-term goals of achieving liberation and independence. And it was in the ’60s and ’70s really a global inspiration for revolutionaries all over the world, from Asia to Africa to Latin America. But yet what happened in the 1980s and onwards was that the revolution basically failed. It betrayed its ideals. Now you have a Vietnam that’s Communist in name but capitalist in practice, and the government is deeply cynical. The people are cynical. It’s a real tragedy about what can happen to a revolution. But at the same time, the book, it ends on a somewhat optimistic note that even if this revolution fails, the ideals and the possibilities of revolution still exist if we learn from our mistakes.

Michael C.: One of the paradoxes of America, it seems to me, looking at America from the outside, is that you have this bedrock of conservatism underlying so much of American politics. Not entirely, but the conservative side of politics is robust, and that side also believes in revolution. They believe that they were born out of revolution, and often, their foreign policy seems to be shaped by the belief that if you can trigger a revolution in another country, it will be of a democratic American kind. Whereas the rest of the world tends to think of revolutions as leading to sort of communism or Maxist outcomes. Consider that Americans often think that a revolution will produce people who want to go to Walmart.

Viet Thanh N.: Well, I think there is … and part of the book, which is quite cognizant of these contradictory tendencies in American culture and history, and it’s satirical of these tendencies. I mean, certainly, the book refers to how there was an American Revolution that was actually fairly radical a couple of centuries ago. But as is typically the case, revolutions calcify, they harden, they become conservative, and that’s what’s happened to the United States. And so, the conservative right wing movement in the United States sees itself as the inheritor of this revolution for freedom. But of course, I think from my perspective, that it’s a perversion of what freedom means, and it’s really an endorsement of American state practices, American global domination, that is the mirror image of what the American Revolution actually meant in terms of independence for a small country in 1776.

Michael C.: Viet, one of the highlights of the novel is a long episode in which the captain goes off to the Philippines to work as a cultural advisor on a movie about the Vietnam War. Can we just talk briefly about real movies, because I’m interested to know what happened when you were younger and you saw movies like Platoon or Rambo. What was your identity when you watched them? Did you watch them as a little American, or did you see your Vietnamese self there being sort of blown up?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, both. I think, like everybody else who grows up in the United States, I was deeply enamored … I am deeply enamored of American popular culture, saw all kinds of war movies, identified with American soldiers in World War II movies, and so on. And then the Vietnam War movies came, and I was watching them at the same time. And of course, I was identifying with American soldiers because that’s the … it’s through their eyes that these stories are told. And then, as you imply, once they start killing Vietnamese people, it was an awful moment of being split within for me, recognizing that for everyone else who is watching these movies, I wasn’t the American, I was the gook or the Vietnamese being shot, or killed, or just relegated to the sidelines with nothing to say, or having only literally gobbledygook to say. So, that scarred me pretty deeply, those movies that you’ve talk about and Apocalypse Now, which is referenced in a significant way in the Philippines section.

Michael C.: Now, Apocalypse Now is a very different kind of movie, though. Those are the ones, they’ve got a sense of the darkness of war ,I suppose, but in the end they’re triumphal movies. Whereas Apocalypse Now is about a very disturbing view of war and what America has become in the face of war. How did you respond when you saw that?

Viet Thanh N.: Well, and the satire in the book refers to all of these different kinds of movies, but I think the reason why Apocalypse Now seems so much more foregrounded is precisely because of what you’re saying, that it’s actually an intelligent movie. It’s a movie about the heart of darkness. But if you know anything about Apocalypse Now, it’s all about the making of it, Francis Ford Coppola and so on. It’s also a movie about megalomania and its making, both in its depiction of Kurtz and Marlon Brando, but also Francis Ford Coppola itself. And the irony is that for all of the artistic genius that goes into making this movie, which I respect very much, at the same time, it also completely subordinates, erases, marginalizes Vietnamese people. And so, as someone who really respects that movie as a work of art, and I’m also deeply antagonized by it in terms of what it does to the Vietnamese people. So, this is my revenge, this long section.

Michael C.: Yeah, yeah. No, it’s sweet revenge. It’s sweet revenge.

Viet Thanh N.: I hope, yeah.

Michael C.: And although you say you’ve drawn on all sorts of movies, I mean, Apocalypse Now is front and center because, as you say, you’ve got this egocentric director just called the Auteur, and we do think of Francis Ford Coppola. And the Marlon Brando character in this play is just this actor. And there’s a reference to his final death scene. This is what Brando actually says in his famous final death scene.

Marlon: The horror. The horror.

Michael C.: There he is saying, “The horror. The horror.” But in fact, you have him say …

Viet Thanh N.: The whore, the whore. And partial it’s because I, I myself can never really pronounced the difference between those two words, right? And so there is a part of the plot where he is killed by a prostitute, and that is … those are his final words.

Michael C.: I laughed out loud when I read, “The whore. The whore.” Now elsewhere, you’ve talked about something you call ethical memory. Can you tell us what you mean by that? Because it seems to play into what your overall project is here.

Viet Thanh N.: Yeah. Well, I’m a scholar as well, and I’ve been thinking about issues in war and memory for 13 years. Writing this book that’s coming out in March from Harvard called Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. And ethical memory is what I work on there. And basically the issue there, what I’m arguing for, is that ethical memory is challenging. It’s hard. It’s much easier to be unethical in our memories. It’s much easier to just remember people that we consider to be part of our own group, whatever that means.

Viet Thanh N.: And certainly growing up in the United States and encountering all these American memories, I thought these memories were unethical because the American ethnocentric will to just remember themselves is what led the US into Vietnam, what led them to conduct this horrible war, and what’s led them to not remember the lessons of the Vietnam War and fight the curtain wars in the middle East. And so, ethical memory is important for these political reasons to remember others, to remember people we would rather overlook. But it’s also important for art, for writing. It’s crucial for the work of the artist or the writer or the filmmaker to have an ethical memory, to be cognizant of what it means to talk about and to tell stories about others.

Michael C.: The other idea that’s had a lot of currency on our show here at Books and Arts this year is W.G. Sebald’s idea of inherited trauma, And I gather that this is an idea that’s also appealed to you Can you explain the idea?

Viet Thanh N.: Yeah. I think the word that he used … I think maybe he also used the inherited trauma, but he also said secondhand memories. And I thought that was really powerful. He was born during World War II, had no memory of the war, but spent his entire career writing about the Holocaust and Germans during World War II. And certainly, I think that’s a very universal experience for anybody whose parents have been shaped by war and trauma, as mine have.

Viet Thanh N.: So even though I have no living memory of Vietnam or the war, I feel that I’ve inherited some set of memories and some set of feelings from my parents and what they endured. Those things shaped their lives, shaped what they said and didn’t say, and all kinds of behaviors. And that was part of the environment that I grew up in, and it shaped me too. And that’s why I think a lot of people, the second generation after a war, find themselves continuing to be shaped by things that preceded their own memory.

Michael C.: Yeah. Well, it’s a powerful idea. Viet, it’s been lovely to meet you, and congratulations on this book. It’s an absolute triumph, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Viet Thanh N.: Thanks so much, Michael.

Michael C.: Viet Thanh Nguyen. He’s an associate professor at the University of Southern California, and his debut novel is called The Sympathizer. It’s published in Australia by Allen & Unwin. And yeah, I reckon you’ll hear a lot more about this book. In my mind, it’s one of the standout novels of the year.


Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

More Interviews