Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Pultizer-winning ‘Sympathizer’ is Most Readworthy

Rob Neufield reviews The Sympathizer for Citizen-Times.

“The Sympathizer,” arcs between the dual implications of being an ally and a spy. Its author, Viet Thanh Nguyen (pronounced Nwin) draws on the ghosted memories of Americans and Vietnamese at war.  And the plot delivers protracted shocks that beckon self-questioning.

“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces,” the novel begins.  “I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book … I am simply able to see any issue from two sides.”

The speaker, who goes unnamed, has many personality splits.

His mother had been a loving Vietnamese mountain woman; his father, her employer, a deadbeat French priest. This makes the narrator a mixed-race bastard, as he’s branded by his countrymen.

At an early age, a Viet Cong handler named Man began grooming the narrator as a secret agent. Sent to America for a college education, he returned to serve, undercover, as aide-de-camp to a South Vietnamese general.

Having learned to speak unaccented English, our hero was also baptized in American culture, and came to know Americans better than they knew themselves. This aspect of his personality accounts for his ability to make a Batman reference (Two-Face) in the opening quote.

Finally, the “sympathizer” comes to represent his people, a divided nation, which makes the novel much bigger than his personal story. And his personal story mirrors the human tendency to be detached at certain times, and feeling at others.

In the thick

The 1975 Fall of Saigon takes up the first three chapters, and we learn of its chaotic, amoral, and deadly progress through the narrator’s confession, which he is writing up, we learn, for someone he addresses as Commandant.

Among the horrors we read about is the rush for scarce airplane spaces. This becomes a closely felt story because the narrator has been charged by the General to pick which few of his staff will make the evacuee cut. The choices will have violent consequences.

The narrator must also bribe people to get passports and tickets, including for the General’s 58 family members. Vietnamese were not like Noah, the book notes; everyone comes along.

When the narrator had gone to pay off the officer who would be letting the General’s entourage through the airport gate, the man, sitting in his slum house shared by parents and in-laws, said to him, “You want me to stab my country in the back … You want to pay me to let cowards and traitors escape.”

The narrator is unmarried — his sexual wolf status is another complication of his character — but he has two blood brothers from childhood, Man, his communist superior; and Bon, for whom he obtains tickets to bring his wife and son.

Long ago, when they’d bonded in their hometown, the narrator relates, “I could not predict that Bon would one day join the Phoenix Program to avenge his murdered father, his task to assassinate the people whom Man and I considered comrades.”

Look up the Phoenix Program. You’ll get a sense of the harrowing place to which “The Sympathizer” goes.

Why go there?

There are many good reasons to excavate and talk about the Vietnam War.

“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit,” Nguyen quotes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Nguyen’s new non-fiction book, “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War.”

King expressed what haunts all of us, Nguyen notes, for the Vietnam War is constantly invoked as the starting point of failed U.S. military missions in third world countries.

And yet, America is also the land of dreams and the melting pot, which makes it especially glaring that the racial component of our psyche “continues to roil and disturb the American Dream … One can draw a distinction here between the two faces” of our country, a line that the Vietnamese drew, as they appealed to the hearts and minds of Americans to oppose their government’s policies.

There are a number of scenes in “The Sympathizer” that engage in soul-searching. One, which comprises four chapters, tells of the narrator’s employment as an expert consultant in the making of a dark, heroic Vietnam War movie.

The narrator has little control over how the arrogant director views and abuses history and culture; and to bring it home, Nguyen tells us in the acknowledgements for his novel that Francis Ford Coppola and “Apocalypse Now” were his inspirations.

In another scene, the narrator and the General meet with a Congressman, a British expert on Asian communism, and other potential supporters of the exiled General’s cause. The expert asks the narrator if he’s happy in America, a question that the narrator knows is awkward, and he answers that he is not unhappy.

The expert approves. “You are not unhappy because you are pursuing happiness and have not yet captured it,” he said. This is like the American Dream Nguyen writes about in “Nothing Ever Dies”: “While Americans may falter, they always strive.”

And this echoes what I recall Steve Inskeep saying when he talked about his book, “Jacksonland,” at Malaprop’s. In reference to our policies regarding Native Americans, Inskeep quoted Churchill: “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.”  Which I thought was wrong, seeing how that blithe optimism pushed to the side all the damage that had been done.

There’s a lot to talk about, and Nguyen, in his debut novel, rises to the top of the most readworthy list.


This novel was the subject of a recent book discussion, and is recommended for other groups. Find the literary events calendar online at for more book discussion groups and meeting times.

Rob Neufeld writes the weekly book feature for the Sunday Citizen-Times.  He is the author and editor of six books, and the publisher of the website, “The Read on WNC.” 


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