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Summary

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2016.

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.

A gripping spy story, 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.

©2016 Viet Thanh Nguyen (P)2016 Audible, Ltd

Critic reviews

"A fierce novel written in a refreshingly high style and charged with intelligent rage." ( Financial Times)
"[A] dark and exciting debut novel.... Black humour seeps through these pages." ( Wall Street Journal)

What listeners say about The Sympathizer

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  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Mixed views

A fascinating story about post war Vietnam refugees, with a lot of philosophical musings on the nature of race, political ideologies, & the refugee experience. A fairly dull delivery though unfortunately which spoilt it a bit for me

14 people found this helpful

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The Unknown Underlined by the Unspoken

I know I know, ideas above my station! From Child, Rankin and Cornwell to Viet Thanh Nguyen's debut novel! The thing is when I saw the 2016 Pulitzer Prize Winner unrated at the time, possibly unread and seemingly unloved it just seemed too much of a curio to turn my head from. I'm not even going to begin to pretend that I know what makes a good prize winning novel, that's for much wiser minds than mine to weigh up and decide upon.

But did the book entertain me? Hell yes! Some of the passages have genuine humour and much of the book is blackly satirical and just as an example includes the lead character's discovery of the sexuality of raw squid! I'll say no more on that but a myriad topics get covered and while these characters existed half a world apart from me it seems, shock horror, that there are more similarities between the peoples of the world than disparities.

Did the book make me think? Yes again. This does descend to some pretty dark stuff including incidents of violence, conscience, political expedience and the mental cruelty of torture. Our written narrator is not only of mixed parentage, something looked down upon in the Vietnamese culture but also a Viet Cong double agent! That's enough to stretch anyone's mind and the author takes no prisoners while discussing both Western and Oriental culture.

Did the book excite me? Yes, there are some tense scenes including the early escape from Vietnam which was particularly well done albeit tragic in nature.

So was it great? I suspect as books go it genuinely is. So much so that I will return to it as I have no doubt that multiple re-readings would unearth more gems from this multi-layered tome. As an audiobook it's not perfect though and it does take considerable concentration. At least by my standards! Francois Chau's mildly accented English gives the feel of authenticity but otherwise paints the text in fairly arid tones. I am sure I lost nuance in some of the more philosophical and humorous passages.

So, a very accomplished book and one that I am very glad that I have completed. So much so that I will indeed give it another try some time to see what I missed first time!

45 people found this helpful

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An Emotional Sensation

I had never heard of this writer before but was looking for literature to read that has been translated into English. I'm so glad I found this novel, it's truly a masterpiece and so illuminating! Without giving much away, I laughed, I cried and I felt such deep kingship with the Vietnamese people affected by the Vietnam War. I really recommend this book to anyone who wants to try something new and read literature that hasn't got a fully Westernised backdrop.

8 people found this helpful

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A very long confession

I did come close to giving up, but persisted to the end, despite the rather grating narration.

The fall of Saigon, and the troubles of a refugee diaspora that cannot return home are well told. How to go back to a country that no longer exists, and how to cope with being dual heritage, but accepted by neither, are interesting and rambling musings.

The most interesting section was on the film set, about how representation supersedes reality. We sometimes hear of how history is written by the victors, but the history of the Vietnam-American war is very much the opposite, with the defeated side writing the history. As such we see the Americans depicted as noble motivated victims, perhaps let down by a few bad apples. Such is the history of Imperialism, as told by Europeans and Americans.

The Sympathiser sometimes casts light on this biased version of history, but at times falls into the same trap. The Vietnamese characters as much as the American ones are without much nuance, and there is little character development or learning. The female characters are peripheral, but only Lana seems comfortably assimilated to America.

In particular the central trio of blood brothers (including the narrator) do not develop much, and despite ample opportunity it is not at all clear why the narrator is a Communist agent. He believes in nothing, not even himself, so his motivations are never clear, neither of the other two are much better explained, and all seem set in aspic, ending as they began.

The Vietnamese refer to the "American War" and despite American characters being only in supporting roles, that is how the story unwinds. There is so much more to Vietnam than its troubled relationship with the USA.

6 people found this helpful

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Absolutely brilliant

I've just finished and it's difficult to know what to write.

Vietnam seen from the 'other side', or maybe both sides at the same time. Catch 22's 'zaniness' filtered through a much more subtle, ironic sense of humour.

Beautifully written, such that even the clichés, puns and aphorisms are forgivably and pointedly redirected.

Worthy of all the praise directed at it.

Just a word of warning: like Catch 22, there is a moment that the absurdist black comedy switches to just absurdly black.

5 people found this helpful

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Long, and heavy

Some might like this but very heavy and too drawn out for me. I liked the voice and performance of reader was good but the story demanded to much thought to really appreciate

5 people found this helpful

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Not sure

Smarter people than I rate this book, so it’s probably me but I just didn’t get on with this. The writer seems unjustifiably proud of knowing the word “crapulent”. To me, this is a short story collection, blu tacked together into a larger work that just never quite feels right. Won the Pulitzer though, so may have just gone over my head.

4 people found this helpful

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Why?

Why did I waste my time persevering with this... if you aren’t enjoying it by half way just give up

3 people found this helpful

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Not what I expected

I’d read a few reviews before deciding to buy this. It’s a strange story and not at all what I thought, but that’s okay.

The narrator’s voice gives it a certain authenticity, but likewise the guy rarely gives any emotion and it’s a long monologue. In a way, that makes sense... as he’s reading a confession... but it makes it very hard to listen and give it your full attention.

I was torn between 3 and 4 stars on story - I quite liked it but like I say, not really the story you might be expecting.

3 people found this helpful

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Harrowing

Powerful tale but a tough listen. In audible format the plot is a bit confusing.

1 person found this helpful

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  • James R. Modrall
  • 22-12-21

Thriller or history lesson?

A complex, thoughtful book. Having grown up in the shadow of the Vietnam war in the US, I was stunned by this study of the interplay between the countries, personified by the title character whose gift and curse is that he sympathizes with both sides. Presumably the same goes for the author.

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  • Utilisateur anonyme
  • 31-01-21

Illuminating, intriguing and gut wrenching

The author's use of imagery is sardonic and paints a beautifully lurid picture of the hypocrisy of self-entitled idealogues intent on exercising what tgwy believe to be in the best interests of tge people.
Nguyen brings to life the complexities of Vietnamese culture in the 20th century, allowing western readers to glimpse into a non-Hollywoodised era and people. Being one of tge few books written from the perspective of the Vietnamese by a person of Vietnamese descent, it is essential reading for anyone interesred in studying the contentious wars that plagued Vietnamese people for decades.

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  • Utilisateur anonyme
  • 18-10-19

Best Narrator, best story.

An amazing book narrated by one of the best narrators. His voice colours in the moods and makes it an authentic story telling time.