Arts and Culture

‘The Sympathizer,’ By Viet Thanh Nguyen – Book Review

Genre: Historical Fiction, Immigrant, Political, Spy, War

Page count: 382

After the fall of Saigon, the narrator—a communist sleeper agent and South Vietnamese army captain—is forced to live as a refugee in the United States, sacrificing everything to give the people of Vietnam the voice they have been denied and the representation they deserve in the eyes of an ignorant, self-centered Western civilization. In the form of a written confession, he describes his plight living as a spy and refugee, assisting as an advisor in the production of an American movie inaccurately retelling the Vietnam War, and finally returning to Vietnam as part of a guerrilla raid against communists. 

The Vietnam War was a 19 year period of conflict between North Vietnam—supported by the Soviet Union—and South Vietnam—supported by the USA and other anti-communists allies. In the novel, the narrator, having studied in the United States, is eloquent in American culture, and is able to help in relations between South Vietnam and the USA under the role of army captain and right-hand man of the General. Although he feels camaraderie with South Vietnam, he uses his position to send classified information to the North Vietnamese side. 

Being half-Vietnamese and half-French, he was brought up in the face of discrimination, and because of this, is able to sympathize with any group of people and see any issue from multiple sides. Hence, the title of the novel, The Sympathizer. 

In 1971, the United States withdraws from the war, leaving Vietnam to be consumed by communism. Vietnamese that are able to flee seek to live in North America, hoping to find a better life. However, as the author states in the book, ”refugee members were hobbled by their structural function in the American Dream, which was to be so unhappy as to make other Americans grateful for their happiness” (143).  The country promises to protect Vietnam and its people, yet it does the opposite. The Vietnamese that once lived respectable lives now struggle to even put food on their tables, and would do anything to gain back their country and the dignity they once had. The narrator, now living in the United States as an aide-de-camp to the General, writes in a letter to his handler in Vietnam: ”…these busboys, waiters, janitors, gardeners, mechanics, night guards, and welfare beneficiaries… want their country back… but they also yearn for recognition and remembrance from that country that no longer exists” (222). He takes it upon himself to give his people a voice when history has silenced them. 

Having won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2016, this novel was recognized for the literary success it is. The story it tells is important in today’s world, as it gives Vietnamese people the representation they deserve and have been denied for centuries in the eyes of Western civilization. The author succeeds in destroying negative stereotypes regarding Vietnam and the Orient in general, and exposes the unjust and ignorant way in which Americans view and behave towards other cultures. It offers a different and much needed perspective on the Vietnam War, revealing the values and humanity behind both sides of the war, and even the communist ideology. The Sympathizer is a beautifully written and masterfully thought-out piece of literature that will illuminate all those who come to experience it. 


Nguyen, Viet Thanh. The Sympathizer. First Edition. New York: Grove Press, 2015.

Categories: Arts and Culture

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