Club Selection for May 2016
Viet Thanh Nguyen
Pages: 384 / Audio: 13 hrs 53 min
Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction
Winner of the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
A profound, startling, and beautifully crafted debut novel, The Sympathizer is the story of a man of two minds, someone whose political beliefs clash with his individual loyalties.
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 novel, 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.
Novel Gobblers Perspective
Carol's Rating: ★★★
Did I enjoy this book? Not really.
Am I glad I read it? Absolutely.
I'll be the first to admit I don't know much about history. I know very little about Vietnam and the fall of Saigon and even less about the Vietnamese people. By the time I reached the 5th chapter I stopped because I could not figure out what was going on. I was lost. I put the book down and hit the internet for some background on the fall of Saigon and interviews with the author. Not everyone will need to do this but it certainly helped me get my mind into the proper context in preparation for the book.
While this book was a fictional story about a double agent, it weaves in a great deal of history, culture and many-layered characters. It makes you think. It truly is deserving of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction award, as it is well-written with many beautiful descriptions, double-meanings, broad vocabulary, and metaphors, which I loved and I hated. By the last third of the book all the descriptions and metaphors became tedious and I began impatiently skimming over the words to move things along. Even so, the story was interesting, eye-opening, and at times, touching. You'll ponder the story and events long after finishing the book. I'm glad I read it. In fact, I'm liking it now far more than I did while reading it. I appreciate the skills and talents of the author. He certainly achieved one of his goals -- I now have a much greater awareness and understanding that "Vietnam is a country, not a war".
Catherine's Rating: ★★★★★
This book was fascinating. Why aren't there more books about Vietnam? The few books/films out there are only about the American soldiers fighting in the jungle and not about why the war was fought or how the Vietnamese people felt about it. It was interesting to hear a Vietnamese perspective for once, one that somewhat told "both" sides of the story.
About the Author
Interview with the Author
Viet Thanh Nguyen
(pronounced as: Viet Tang When)
Viet was born in Buon Me Thuot, Vietnam. He came to the United States as a refugee in 1975 with his family and was initially settled in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, one of four such camps for Vietnamese refugees. From there, he moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he lived until 1978.
Seeking better economic opportunities, his parents moved to San Jose, California, and opened one of the first Vietnamese grocery stores in the city. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, San Jose had not yet been transformed by the Silicon Valley economy, and was in many ways a rough place to live, at least in the downtown area where Viet’s parents worked. He commemorates this time in his short story “The War Years” (TriQuarterly 135/136, 2009).
Viet attended St. Patrick School and Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose. After high school, he briefly attended UC Riverside and UCLA before settling on UC Berkeley, where he graduated with degrees in English and ethnic studies. He stayed at Berkeley, earning his Ph.D. in English.
After getting his degree, Viet moved to Los Angeles for a teaching position at the University of Southern California, and has been there ever since.
Source: Author's Official Website
NPR Author Interview & News
Author Viet Thanh Nguyen Discusses 'The Sympathizer' And His Escape From Vietnam
Fresh Air | May 17, 2016 2:00 PM ET
Viet Thanh Nguyen and his family fled their village in South Vietnam in 1975. He won the Pulitzer Prize this year for 'The Sympathizer,' a spy novel set during and just after the war in Vietnam.
Here's a few excerpts from this wonderful interview:
"It's my revenge on Francis Ford Copilla. It's my revenge on Hollywood."
"And, you know, my lonely, small effort - … to try to get Americans to understand that Vietnam is a country and not a war."
Listen to the full interview or Get the Transcript
Viet Thanh Nguyen, 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner, endorses academic and cultural boycott of Israel
The following announcement was made today by the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel:
Scholar and writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner and associate professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, has endorsed BDS and the cultural and academic boycott of Israel in support of Palestinian rights.
Always remember, never forget. These powerful words compel us to think about both the injustices of the past and the injustices of the present. One of those contemporary injustices that we struggle to remember is the Israeli occupation and the deprivation of Palestinian rights. For any of us concerned with justice, the imperative is clear: we must stand with the disempowered and the forgotten against militarism and the state,” said Nguyen.
Nguyen joins two other Pulitzer Prize winners, Junot Diaz and Alice Walker, in endorsing the call of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
Nguyen is the author of Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America (Oxford University Press, 2002) and the novel The Sympathizer, from Grove/Atlantic (2015). The Sympathizer won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, an Edgar Award for Best First Novel from the Mystery Writers of America, the First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction, the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction from the American Library Association, a California Book Award, and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in Fiction from the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association. It was also a finalist for thePEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. The novel made it to over thirty book-of-the-year lists, including The Guardian, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Amazon.com, Slate.com, and The Washington Post.
His latest book is Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, which is the critical bookend to a creative project whose fictional bookend is The Sympathizer. Nothing Ever Dies examines how the so-called Vietnam War has been remembered by many countries and people, from the US to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and South Korea. Harvard University Press published it in March 2016. Kirkus Reviews calls the book “a powerful reflection on how we choose to remember and forget.”
History: The Last Days in Vietnam
The Embassy Evacuation
Learn about the decision to evacuate Americans and South Vietnamese from the U.S. embassy and about the experience of a South Vietnamese Army lieutenant who stayed behind in this media gallery adapted from American Experience: Last Days in Vietnam.
By mid-April 1975, it was clear that the North Vietnamese Army would attack Saigon. While the U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, Graham Martin, had been hopeful that Saigon would be spared, he ultimately sanctioned the helicopter airlift that helped 1,100 threatened South Vietnamese to their freedom. Lieutenant Dam Pham was not among those evacuated. He was arrested and spent 13 years in a communist re-education camp.
A Moral Obligation
With just 24 hours in which to complete an evacuation of Americans still in the embassy in Saigon, Ambassador Martin decides to airlift as many South Vietnamese as possible to safety from the advancing North Vietnamese Army, in this video adapted from American Experience: Last Days in Vietnam. (2 min 30 sec)
Lieutenant Dam Pham
Dam Pham, a lieutenant in the South Vietnamese Army who remained in Saigon after its fall, reflects on the war’s outcome. (2 min 11 sec)
Last Days in Vietnam - Documentary Feature
Directed and Produced by Rory Kennedy
Academy Award® Nominee - American Experience Films
In April of 1975, the North Vietnamese Army was closing in on Saigon as South Vietnamese resistance was crumbling. Approximately 5,000 Americans remained with roughly 24 hours to get out. Their South Vietnamese allies, co-workers, and friends faced certain imprisonment and possible death if they remained behind, yet there was no official evacuation plan in place. Still, over the last days in Vietnam, with the clock ticking and the city under fire, 135,000 South Vietnamese managed to escape with help from a number of heroic Americans who took matters into their own hands, engaging in unsanctioned and often makeshift operations in a desperate effort to save as many people as possible.(2 min 15 sec)
Nothing is as precious as Independence and Freedom."
How could I forget that every truth meant at least two things, that slogans were empty suits draped on the corpse of an idea? The suits depended on how one wore them....
We're all familiar with the negative meaning of nothing -- absence. However, the positive meaning is more difficult to grasp. "The paradoxical fact that nothing is, indeed, something".
What was the Commissar's meaning of the positive definition of "nothing"?
One of the best explanations I've come across was given by Goodreads Author Joe Kraus in response to a reader's comment:
....the Commissar has to keep interrogating him for (like everything else in the novel) two reasons:
1) The structure of post-war Vietnam demands that anyone tainted with Western thinking be taught to think like the "restored" country. In that light, our protagonist has to find his own way to the Ho Chi Minh truism that "Nothing" is more important than life and liberty. That's the kind of insight the Commandant values, a mindless literalism that's become dogma in the new country.
2) The Commissar recognizes that mindless truism as dogma, though, as an intellectual betrayal of what motivated them to commit to the revolution as young men. In that light "Nothing" -- pointlessness, the recognition that no thing has any real meaning -- has become more important than the life and liberty for which they were supposed to have committed their lives. Only the Commissar can teach that lesson, and only our protagonist can learn it.
That duality (echoing the divided self of our narrator) strikes me as brilliantly undermining the ideals of the revolution while still echoing the whole book. I loved this one, really loved it.
Questions from Litlovers.com
- What does the narrator mean when he tells us, "I am a man of two minds"? How does this statement reverberate throughout the book?
- Comparisons of this work have been made to Joseph Heller's Catch-22, an absurdist take on World War II. Nguyen includes similar satire in The Sympathizer. One such example is this statement:
It was a smashingly successful cease-fire, for in the last two years only 150,000 soldiers had died. Imagine how many would have died without a truce!
Can you find other examples where the author employs similar satiric wit? What affect does such a stylistic device have on your reading? Does the black humor lessen the horror of the war, or draw more attention to it?
- Talk about the conclusion of the book, which many describe as shattering. Was it so for you? How has the narrator been changed by his experiences? What has he come to learn about himself, his culpability, his identity, the war, America and Vietnam?
- The narrator says that the war in Vietnam "was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors." What does he mean by that? What do you know (or remember) about the war—and how did you come to know it? How does point of view, who does the telling, alter one's understanding of history?