The sympathizer, p.1
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       The Sympathizer, p.1

           Viet Thanh Nguyen
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The Sympathizer

  Praise for The Sympathizer

  “A dark, funny—and Vietnamese—look at the Vietnam War.”

  —NPR “All Things Considered”

  “A very special, important, brilliant novel . . . Amazing . . . I don’t say brilliant about a lot of books, but this is a brilliant book . . . A fabulous book . . . that everyone should read.”

  —Nancy Pearl,

  “Powerful and evocative . . . [The story] opens in gripping detail.”

  —San Francisco Chronicle

  “The novel’s best parts are painful, hilarious exposures of white tone-deafness . . . [the] satire is delicious.”

  —New Yorker

  “This debut is a page-turner (read: everybody will finish) that makes you reconsider the Vietnam War (read: everyone will have an opinion) . . . Nguyen’s darkly comic novel offers a point of view about American culture that we’ve rarely seen.”

  — (Oprah’s Book Club Suggestions)

  “[A] sweeping new novel . . . The burden borne by the novel’s title character . . . is that he recognized the appeal of each conflicting worldview he encounters. He’s a modern Hamlet, torn by his ability to see all sides.”


  “A welcome and necessary book . . . [Nguyen] offers fresh insight in an inventive tale that is equal parts historical spy thriller and darkly comic novel of ideas.”

  —Winnipeg Free Press

  “For those who have been waiting for the great Vietnamese American Vietnam War novel, this is it. More to the point: This is a great American Vietnam War novel . . . It is the last word (I hope) on the horrors of the Vietnamese re-education camps that our allies were sentenced to when we left them swinging in the wind.”

  —Vietnam Veterans of America Blog

  “Strikingly moving on every page, this masterful, detailed work of historical fiction is recommended reading for those who truly want to understand the aftermath of the turbulent Vietnam War.”

  —Historical Novel Society

  “It is a strong, strange and liberating joy to read this book, feeling with each page that a broken world is being knitted back together, once again whole and complete. As far as I am concerned, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer—both a great American novel and a great Vietnamese novel—will close the shelf on the literature of the Vietnam War.”

  —Bob Shacochis, author of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul

  “Read this novel with care; it is easy to read, wry, ironic, wise, and captivating, but it could change not only your outlook on the Vietnam War, but your outlook on what you believe about politics and ideology in general. It does what the best of literature does: expands your consciousness beyond the limitations of your body and individual circumstances.”

  —Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn

  and What It Is Like to Go to War

  “Not only does Viet Thanh Nguyen bring a rare and authentic voice to the body of American literature generated by the Vietnam War, he has created a book that transcends history and politics and nationality and speaks to the enduring theme of literature: the universal quest for self, for identity. The Sympathizer is a stellar debut by a writer of depth and skill.”

  —Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize–winning author

  of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

  “Simultaneously cynical and ardent . . . hypnotic.”

  —Globe and Mail

  “The Sympathizer is a remarkable and brilliant book. By turns harrowing, and cut through by shards of unexpected and telling humor, this novel gives us the conflict in Vietnam, and its aftermath, in a way that is deeply truthful, and vitally important.”

  —Vincent Lam, author of Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures

  “I think I’d have to go all the way back to Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert to find the last narrative voice that so completely conked me over the head and took me prisoner. Nguyen and his unnamed protagonist certainly have made a name for themselves with one of the smartest, darkest, funniest books you’ll read this year.”

  —David Abrams, author of Fobbit

  “Audaciously and vividly imagined. A compelling read.”

  —Andrew X. Pham, author of Catfish and Mandala

  “A necessary, haunting, and astonishing first novel . . . The intensity and weight of each sentence is so astonishingly artful that each deserves to be read twice (or three times) . . . A brilliant achievement.”

  —Consequence Magazine

  “A chronicle of war wrapped in a spy thriller and tucked inside a confession . . . Nguyen juggles genres like so many flying AK-47s, and to dazzling, often hilarious effect . . . The Sympathizer has rightly been welcomed for the different perspective it brings to the war and its devastating effects on the Vietnamese.”

  —Public Books

  “Complex and compelling . . . rhythmic and lithe . . . Nguyen is an expert ironist . . . [He] has given us not an apologia for the actions of a communist mole, but a corrective to reactionary art and ideas that define the rest of the world in oppositional terms. Far from being reactionary, Nguyen’s novel is, in its small way, revolutionary.”


  “Riveting . . . not only a masterly espionage novel, but also a seminal work of 21st century American fiction . . . offers profound insights into the legacy of war and the politically and racially charged atmosphere of the 1970s.”


  “Arresting . . . One of the best pieces of fiction about the Vietnam war—and by a Vietnamese . . . Stunning . . . Could it be that Nguyen has captured the shape of the devolution of war itself, from grand ambition to human ruin? . . . One of the finest novels of the Vietnam War published in recent years.”

  —Daily Beast

  “A brilliant tragicomedy on the Vietnam War and its aftermath. The unnamed protagonist . . . possesses a Graham Greene–like moral ambiguity, the ability to see every side of a problem as he weaves an intricate web of divided treachery . . . Nguyen’s masterly book is too vast in scope, its tonal shifts too genre-bending and sinuous (it encompasses espionage thriller and dark farce, cross-cultural satire and disturbing absurdist fiction, among other things) to do it justice in a short review, but he’s a writer of huge talent.”

  —Sydney Morning Herald (Pick of the Week)

  “Brilliantly crafted . . . Extraordinary and illuminating . . . Stunningly well written, in a voice that rings utterly true from first page to last . . . Perfect-pitch authenticity of detail . . . An astonishing feat of imagining historical truth.”

  —Cicero Magazine

  “[The Sympathizer] tackles post-war trauma with a dark tone that resonates with global tensions . . . Nguyen’s nihilistic vision, crafted in black humor and delivered in an original voice, is a worthwhile journey.”

  —Hyphen Magazine

  “Mesmerizing . . . nuanced prose, richly loaded with atmospheric detail . . . Destined to be a contemporary classic and a valuable addition to literature about one of America’s most defining wars.”


  “The Sympathizer reads like an act of irregular warfare. An insurgency in prose, this strange, lovely spy story opens a new front in what revisionist historian Max Boot calls ‘The War over the Vietnam War.’ . . . A very good book, it can’t help but lift up the whole body of espionage literature. . . . [The Sympathizer] is one of the finest American spy ­novels—an unavoidably national credit.”

  —New Inquiry

  “Dazzling prose . . . The narrator’s voice alone is the novel’s universe, its whole self, always displaying a leaping, dangerous intelligence that makes the book nearly
impossible to close . . . The Sympathizer exceeds its two nearest relations in concept and form, Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker and Hari Kunzru’s The Impressionist.”


  “An important new perspective on the Vietnam War . . . The Sympathizer will both startle and grip you.”


  “With twists and betrayals worthy of Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, Viet Thanh Nguyen has written THE novel about the fall of Saigon and its aftermath, a novel that puts Vietnam at the center of the Vietnam War. Part espionage, part existential crisis, and part Hollywood farce, The Sympathizer humanizes and complicates our understanding of one of the most vivid conflicts in history.”

  —Fiction Advocate

  “Nguyen shakes up stereotypical notions of the War in Vietnam . . . cunning, often funny, sometimes chilling prose . . . puts him in a tradition of great novels, mostly nineteenth century, about stark and explosive doublings. These include Dostoyevsky’s The Double, Zola’s The Human Beast, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

  —Arts Fuse

  “Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut has critics everywhere buzzing. In my own reading, I kept think[ing] of Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. It’s equally as impressive, too.”

  —Novel Enthusiasts

  “Nguyen’s novel works to disorient, or reorient, audiences who have identified with a master narrative that has long gone unquestioned or disputed.”


  “[A] shimmering debut novel . . . Leaping with lyrical verve, each page turns to a unique and hauntingly familiar voice that refuses to let us forget what people are capable of doing to each other.”

  —Asian American Writers’ Workshop

  “Superb . . . Artfully and entertainingly dissects Vietnamese history while keeping in mind present debacles, sympathizing with and critiquing both political revolutionaries and the revolutionary innocence at the heart of American history.”

  Wrath-Bearing Tree

  “[Nguyen] proves a gifted and bold satirist . . . By making us like his narrator so much, Nguyen reminds us of our own complicity in American war crimes. When he struggles to forget or talk around what he has done, it would be dishonest for us not to sympathize.”

  —Barnes & Noble Review

  “An early frontrunner for debut novel of the year, The Sympathizer considers the fall of Saigon in 1975 through the eyes of The Captain. It’s as much a spy novel of political intrigue as it is an examination of Communism, the CIA, and torture.”

  —Flavorwire (10 Must-Read Books for April)

  “Part bildungsroman, part spy thriller, part cultural and political reclamation, The Sympathizer is a magnetic debut about identity, morality, and the impossible price of loyalty.”


  “Breathtakingly cynical, [The Sympathizer] has its hilarious moments . . . a powerful, thought-provoking work. It’s hard to believe this effort, one of the best recent novels to cover the Vietnamese conflict from an Asian perspective, is a debut. This is right up there with Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke.”

  —Library Journal (starred review)

  “Nguyen’s probing literary art illuminates how Americans failed in their political and military attempt to remake Vietnam—but then succeeded spectacularly in shrouding their failure in Hollywood distortions. Compelling—and profoundly unsettling.”

  —Booklist (starred review)

  “A timely reminder of the brutality and deceptions of war . . . written with rich descriptions and, at times, heart-stopping intensity . . . This gripping debut captures a period of the Vietnam war that has been largely overlooked.”

  —South China Morning Post

  “As Graham Greene and Robert Stone have taught us, on the streets of Saigon, nothing is as it seems . . . Think Alan Furst meets Elmore Leonard, and you’ll capture Nguyen at his most surreal . . . a worthy addition to the library of first-rate novels about the Vietnam War.”

  —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

  “[An] astonishing first novel . . . enlivens debate about history and human nature, and his narrator has a poignant often mindful voice.”

  —Publishers Weekly (starred, boxed review)

  “Remarkable . . . An extraordinary book with great insight into Vietnam, its history and people, laden with literary echoes of Graham Greene, ­Joseph Conrad and Franz Kafka.”

  —Chatham House



  Grove Press

  New York

  Copyright © 2015 by Viet Thanh Nguyen

  Cover Art and design by Christopher Moisan

  Author Photograph © BeBe Jacobs

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Scanning, uploading, and electronic distribution of this book or the facilitation of such without the permission of the publisher is prohibited. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated. Any member of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or anthology, should send inquiries to Grove Atlantic, 154 West 14th Street, New York, NY 10011 or

  Published simultaneously in Canada

  Printed in the United States of America

  ISBN 978-0-8021-2494-4

  eISBN 978-0-8021-9169-4

  Grove Press

  an imprint of Grove Atlantic

  154 West 14th Street

  New York, NY 10011

  Distributed by Publishers Group West

  For Lan and Ellison

  Let us not become gloomy as soon as we hear the word “torture”:

  in this particular case there is plenty to offset and mitigate that word—even something to laugh at.

  —Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals


  I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times, when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you—that is a hazard, I must confess. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear.

  The month in question was April, the cruelest month. It was the month in which a war that had run on for a very long time would lose its limbs, as is the way of wars. It was a month that meant everything to all the people in our small part of the world and nothing to most people in the rest of the world. It was a month that was both an end of a war and the beginning of . . . well, “peace” is not the right word, is it, my dear Commandant? It was a month when I awaited the end behind the walls of a villa where I had lived for the previous five years, the villa’s walls glittering with broken brown glass and crowned with rusted barbed wire. I had my own room at the villa, much like I have my own room in your camp, Commandant. Of course, the proper term for my room is an “isolation cell,” and instead of a housekeeper who comes to clean every day, you have provided me with a baby-faced guard who does not clean at all. But I am not comp
laining. Privacy, not cleanliness, is my only prerequisite for writing this confession.

  While I had sufficient privacy in the General’s villa at night, I had little during the day. I was the only one of the General’s officers to live in his home, the sole bachelor on his staff and his most reliable aide. In the mornings, before I chauffeured him the short distance to his office, we would breakfast together, parsing dispatches at one end of the teak dining table while his wife oversaw a well-disciplined quartet of children at the other, ages eighteen, sixteen, fourteen, and twelve, with one seat empty for the daughter studying in America. Not everyone may have feared the end, but the General sensibly did. A thin man of excellent posture, he was a veteran campaigner whose many medals had been, in his case, genuinely earned. Although he possessed but nine fingers and eight toes, having lost three digits to bullets and shrapnel, only his family and confidants knew about the condition of his left foot. His ambitions had hardly ever been thwarted, except in his desire to procure an excellent bottle of Bourgogne and to drink it with companions who knew better than to put ice cubes in their wine. He was an epicurean and a Christian, in that order, a man of faith who believed in gastronomy and God; his wife and his children; and the French and the Americans. In his view, they offered us far better tutelage than those other foreign Svengalis who had hypnotized our northern brethren and some of our southern ones: Karl Marx, V. I. Lenin, and Chairman Mao. Not that he ever read any of those sages! That was my job as his aide-de-camp and junior officer of intelligence, to provide him with cribbed notes on, say, The Communist Manifesto or Mao’s Little Red Book. It was up to him to find occasions to demonstrate his knowledge of the enemy’s thinking, his favorite being Lenin’s question, plagiarized whenever the need arose: Gentlemen, he would say, rapping the relevant table with adamantine knuckles, what is to be done? To tell the General that Nikolay Chernyshevsky actually came up with the question in his novel of the same title seemed irrelevant. How many remember Chernyshevsky now? It was Lenin who counted, the man of action who took the question and made it his own.


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