The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

This is an amazingly well written book. The use of words is so intricate that it changed my mind about English as an expressive language. I had to look up a word almost every other page, but once I looked up these SAT words that I had known the definitions of ten years ago, they always perfectly described the situation. The writing style is also unique, especially the way the author omits quotes when characters are speaking to one another. Somehow, I was never confused about who was talking to whom. On top of all this, the plot is intriguing and well-paced. The end got a bit too Kafkaesque. It’s not bad per se, but I had just read The Trial and The Karamazov Brothers, so I was a bit tired of psychological interrogations. Nonetheless, given the level of the writing and the resonance of Asian American themes, this is definitely one of my all-time favorite books.

1) “She was a poor person, I was her poor child, and no one asks poor people if they want war.”

It still strikes me that the U.S. has fought wars in countries like Japan, Korea, and Vietnam – and there are a lot of people today who lived through those wars. For me, these are mostly just vacation spots. What will the Middle East be like in a generation? Were these wars a bigger deal at the time than the wars we have now?

2) “My mother was native, my father was foreign, and strangers and acquaintances had enjoyed reminding me of this ever since my childhood, spitting on me and calling me bastard, although sometimes, for variety, they called me bastard before they spit on me.”

What a great run-on sentence.

3) “I had an abiding respect for the professionalism of career prostitutes, who wore their dishonesty more openly than lawyers, both of whom bill by the hour.”

Hatred of lawyers is universal. There must be a startup idea somewhere.

4) “So the most just solution is simply for us to return to the situation where I offer you four thousand dollars for ninety-two visa, since you should not even have ninety-two visas or four thousand dollars to begin with.”

This is why I feel like once you’re in a powerful position, you’re basically forced to be bribed even if you don’t want to.

5) “Over the next few days, we wept and we waited. Sometimes, for variety, we waited and we wept.”

This is a great sentence structure. That I will steal.

6) “We used fish sauce the way Transylvanian villagers wore cloves of garlic to ward off vampires, in our case to establish a perimeter with those Westerners who could never understand that what was truly fishy was the nauseating stench of cheese.”

Shots fired. I like fish sauce. I like cheese.

7) “I finally got myself to that wall, and when those marines reached down and grabbed my hand and pulled me up, I damn near cried again…. I was never so ashamed in my life, but I was also never so goddamn glad to be an American, either.”

This is how I feel when I have to go through customs, and I can go to the Global Entry line. Actually, there is no shame.

8) “One must listen to them carefully to understand that while pain is universal, it is also utterly private. We cannot know whether our pain is like anybody else’s pain until we talk about it. Once we do that, we speak and think in ways cultural and individual.”

Pain is really hard to describe. The 1-10 scale is almost completely useless. It’s only useful for comparing one person’s current pain to his/her past pain. I love when I make a weird analogy about how something hurts, and other people get it. But we’ll never know if everyone feels the same pain. For example, do everyone’s feet hurt when they walk? Yes?

9) “Every paranoid person is right at least once, said the tall sergeant. When he dies.”

The ultimate I-told-you-so is not worth being paranoid.

10) “While nothing is more precious than independence and freedom, nothing is also more precious than independence and freedom.”

It’s strange that HCM isn’t discussed much when people talk about communism. Or maybe it’s just telling.

There were a ton of other great quotes. The entire book was quote-worthy. There have been a lot of good books by Asian American writers in the past couple years. I’m hoping there will be more, especially from this guy.

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