the sympathizer

She believed in birth control, gun control, and rent control; she believed in the liberation of homosexuals and civil rights for all; she believed in Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Thich Nhat Hanh; she believed in nonviolence, world peace, and yoga; she believed in the revolutionary potential of disco and the United Nations of nightclubs; she believed in national self-determination for the Third World as well as liberal democracy and regulated capitalism.

I recently finished reading The Sympathizer (2015), by Viet Thanh Nguyen, and I highly recommend it. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a while and has remained in my thoughts. The prose is lyrical and amusing, yet fraught with  the realism of war and death. It made me seriously yearn to see the Vietnam of the 20th century that he describes, one that is both idyllic, textured, and brutal. The protagonist is a Communist sleeper agent who works as a cultural aide-de-camp to a prominent General in the South Vietnamese army. It follows his bisected life, from his tormented upbringing as an illegitimate child of a Vietnamese mother and French father, to his attachment to American culture and simultaneous derision of its political aims and ignorance.

This book came with me on my travels to Cambodia, Hong Kong, and Mt. Fuji in July, and helped me ponder the relationship between story and personal experience. How lovely it would be to read books about each place one travels to! And though Cambodia is not Vietnam, learning about the Civil War under the reign of the Khmer Rouge at the War Museum in Siem Reap and subsequently reading about Vietnam’s invasion and occupation of Cambodia in the late turn of the century seemed to me a well-timed confluence of history and narrative. Mr. Bun, who drove my friend and I to see the Angkor temples, made an offhand comment about how there were too many Vietnamese people in Cambodia, an indicator of perhaps underlying hostility due to this recent occupation. (It should be noted that the hostility ran both ways.)

People often think of impressionability as a bad thing, but part of what I love about reading books is being affected by them and allowing their ideas and my ruminations on them to permeate my life during the period of time that we spend together.

The above quote is about a girl in the book who rebels against her conservative and rigid military family; she runs away to attend Berkeley and becomes a lounge singer determined to create her own destiny. Maybe that’s why I so relate…

By total happenstance I was reading an anthology of travel writing and this story  about the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon led me to deduce that one of the main character’s in the novel, the fallen General of the South Vietnamese Army, is modeled after real life General Nguyen Cao Ky, a French-trained soldier and American-backed Prime Minister of the Vietnamese government beginning in 1965. Like the character, he fled to California after the fall of Saigon in 1975 despite vowing to stay “until [his] last blood”. His daughter was a singer famous among Vietnamese expatriates for her musical variety show filmed in Paris. I love it when detective work finds you.

I appreciate the author’s proposition that the only truly objective way to render a story between foes is to show the humanness and in-humanness of both sides. The acknowledgement of fault and evil perpetrated by both in the struggle allows us to recognize the complexity of these interactions, softening the us vs. them narrative of history.


Here is a cheeky extended metaphor from the book, the kind which Nguyen demonstrates mastery over in his debut novel:

While I was critical of many things when it came to so-called Western civilization, cleavage was not one of them. The Chinese might have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in simple lasciviousness, but was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb “to cleave,” which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman’s cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity. The double meaning was also present in how cleavage separated a woman from a man and yet drew him to her with the irresistible force of sliding down a slippery slope. Men had no equivalent, except, perhaps, for the only kind of male cleavage most women truly cared for, the opening and closing of a well-stuffed billfold.

The book won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and collected numerous other accolades. You can read the book review by the NY Times here. 

Have you read The Sympathizer? If so, what did you think and what books on Cambodia/Vietnam should I read next?

xo your friend alice

P.S. Nguyen graduated from UC Berkeley. Go Bears!

Location: Tokyo, Japan

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