The Sympathizer


Viet Thanh Nguyen tells the story of a communist double agent (half-French, half-Vietnamese) who comes to America after the Fall of Saigon, and while building a new life with other Vietnamese refugees in Los Angeles, is secretly reporting back to his communist superiors in Vietnam.

Favorite quotes from the book:

“Nothing, the General muttered, is ever so expensive as what is offered for free."

"Priests always had much attention lavished on them by their starstruck fans, those devout housewives and wealthy congregants who treated them as if they were guardians of the velvet rope blocking entrance into that ever so exclusive nightclub, Heaven."

"Our society had been a kleptocracy of the highest order, the government doing its best to steal from the Americans, the average man doing his best to steal from the government, the worst of us doing our best to steal from each other."

"Ever since the first caveman discovered fire and decided that the ones still living in darkness were benighted, it’s been civilization against barbarism … with every age having its own barbarians."

"As Hegel said, tragedy was not the conflict between right and wrong but right and right, a dilemma none of us who wanted to participate in history could escape."

"But most actors spent more time with their masks off than on, whereas in my case it was the reverse. No surprise, then, that sometimes I dreamed of trying to pull a mask off my face, only to realize that the mask was my face."

"Some bemoan the brutalism of socialist architecture, but was the blandness of capitalist architecture any better? One could drive for miles along a boulevard and see nothing but parking lots and the kudzu of strip malls catering to every need, from pet shops to water dispensaries to ethnic restaurants and every other imaginable category of mom-and-pop small business, each one an advertisement for the pursuit of happiness."

"What I learned, against my will, is that it’s impossible to live among a foreign people and not become changed by them."

"Sometimes I feel a little foreign to myself as a result, he said."

"I watched the men to see if they would flinch at the idea of sacrificing themselves, but they did not. This was the occult power of the uniform, of the mass, that men who would never dream of sacrificing themselves in the course of their everyday lives waiting on tables would agree to do so while waiting under a hot sun."

"Life’s a suicide mission."

"What makes us human is that we’re the only creatures on this planet that can f*#k ourselves."

"The only problem with not talking to oneself was that oneself was the most fascinating conversational partner one could imagine. Nobody had more patience in listening to one than oneself, and while nobody knew one better than oneself, nobody misunderstood one more than oneself."

"I was in close quarters with some representative specimens of the most dangerous creature in the history of the world, the white man in a suit."

"I believe our clever young man has intuited that while only the pursuit of happiness is promised to all Americans, unhappiness is guaranteed for many."

"Love is being able to talk to someone else without effort, without hiding, and at the same time to feel absolutely comfortable not saying a word."

"But what would happen if one took off the mask and the other saw one not with love but with horror, disgust, and anger? What if the self that one exposes is as unpleasing to others as the mask, or even worse?"

"Some animals could see in the dark, but it was only humans who deliberately sought out every possible route into the darkness of our own interiors. As a species, we have never encountered a cave, a door, or an entrance of any kind that we did not want to enter. We are never satisfied with only one way in. We will always try every possibility, even the blackest and most forbidding passages …"

"I’ve discovered that the only way to manage pain is to imagine someone else’s greater pain, a suffering that diminishes your own."

"This is most crucial, for we are the ones most able to know ourselves and yet the most unable to know ourselves. It’s as if our noses are pressed up against the pages of a book, the words right in front of us but which we cannot read. Just as distance is needed for legibility, so it is that if we could only split ourselves in two and gain some distance from ourselves, we could see ourselves better than anyone else can."

"It is because you are too educated that you are being reeducated."

"But it is not reeducation that I fear. It is the education I have that terrifies me. How can a teacher live teaching something he does not believe in? How do I live seeing you like this? I cannot. Now pull the trigger."

"I understood, at last, how our revolution had gone from being the vanguard of political change to the rearguard hoarding power. In this transformation, we were not unusual. Hadn’t the French and the Americans done exactly the same? Once revolutionaries themselves, they had become imperialists, colonizing and occupying our defiant little land, taking away our freedom in the name of saving us. Our revolution took considerably longer than theirs, and was considerably bloodier, but we made up for lost time. When it came to learning the worst habits of our French masters and their American replacements, we quickly proved ourselves the best. We, too, could abuse grand ideals! Having liberated ourselves in the name of independence and freedom — I was so tired of saying these words! — we then deprived our defeated brethren of the same."

"What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around us apparently do, in nothing?”