Book Reviews: “The Refugees” and “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen made quite a spalsh with “The Sympathizer” in 2015, winning well deserved acclaim and a Pulitzer.

The Sympathizer is a fascinating confession set at the end of the Viet Nam War. The protagonist is a communist mole inside the South Vietnamese forces, and then amid the masses of post-war refugees. He is also mixed race, and in many other ways, a man in between, with feet partly in many camps, but not belonging to any.

He is also a man of two minds, capable of seeing any issue from both sides, as he says. He is a “sympathizer” is many senses, and that is why he gives us such a compelling story. We are able to grasp and sympathize with pretty much everyone in this confused and tragic period.

Actually, that’s not true. None of the Americans come off very well, and most are horrible. This is a pretty stinging and unpleasant view of the US, from the point of view of Vietnamese, and Vietnamese Americans.

As we pass the fiftieth anniversary of the American involvement with recollections and a certain amount of nostalgia for our innocent youth, this book is definitely bucket of cold water. As Nguyen said in a NYT op-ed, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington has not one name of the 200,000  South Vietnamese fighters  who died alongside the Americans listed there, let alone the millions of civilian casualties.

Viet Nam itself does not come off all that much better that the US. Both the winners and losers are badly shattered by decades of war, and atrocities abound. War is hell, and Viet Nam has seen hell.

And, of course, Nguyen gives us an inside look at the horrors of refugee life. Even after reaching relative safety in the US, these uprooted and defeated people feel homeless and unwanted.

The America found by the escapees isn’t pretty, most people simply wishing the Vietnamese weren’t here, and even nice people are clueless and cruel. Nguyen’s withering treatment of academia and the Hollywood version of the war is well aimed, and well deserved.

We would like to believe that, a generation later, the wounds have healed. Nguyen makes clear that this isn’t so.

This year Nguyen published The Refugees, a collection of stories about Vietnamese refugees in the US. These stories are dedicated to “all refugees, everywhere”, in a timely reminder that our current wars have created millions of new refugees.

The stories are mostly about family and memory and isolation. Every family is unhappy in its own way, and Nguyen gives us an assortment of ways to be unhappy. It’s a bit much to read all at once.

Most of the stories take place in California, though nowadays it is perfectly possible to visit Viet Nam, too. In fact, Americans can experience “war tourism” there, with bizarre “Viet Nam Land” exhibits.

What isn’t in these stories is much of a happy, successful integration into American life. Even the ordinary troubles of life take on a harsh and dark meaning for people who feel unwanted by both their old and their new country.

Altogether, Nguyen’s stories are not particular easy or pleasant to read.

I think he wants us to read these stories to understand the life of refugees, and the fact that our country created or at least magnified the disaster they had to escape, and also the limbo they escaped to.

These are not the stories we want to be true, and the immigrants have arrived under the worst possible circumstances. But it’s real and unfortunately true.

It may be significant that Nguyen writes in English, and teaches “American Studies” in California. I think I can see the thinking of of the Pulitzer and other awards:these are very American stories, stories of immigrants, and the reality of immigrant life. Nguyen is an American voice and these are very American stories, whatever that means to him, and whatever that means to us.

  1. Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer, New York, Grove Atlantic, 2015.
  2. Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Refugees, New York, Grove Atlantic, 2017.


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