Tony Tran and Helen Nguyen
11 March 2016
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
A spy for the North Vietnamese communists, the unnamed Narrator of this story works undercover as the General’s loyal aide-de-camp and junior officer of intelligence for the South Vietnamese National Police. Right from the start, he confesses, “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces...Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds...able to see any issue from both sides” (1). Born the son of a Vietnamese woman and a French Catholic preacher, our Narrator believes that seeing life in two lenses is a talent--one that stems from his statuses as occidental/oriental and true communist/professed anti-communist. However, as he confesses to the mysterious “Commandant” throughout the book, “a talent is something you use, not something that uses you” or else it becomes a hazard (1). As we discover in his recount of events following the Fall of Saigon in April 1975, his dualistic way of viewing the world eventually poses many dangers to his life.
April marks the month when the war ended and a future for Vietnam begins-- a time 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” (1). As the Narrator watches the city of Saigon fall apart, he feels conflicted over whether to celebrate the communist victory or to sympathize for the Vietnamese people. He imagines how one of the mourning civilians could have been his poor mother, one of whom had no say about the war and did not want any of it all happening at the cost of their own lives (3). After lingering over much thought, he and his blood brothers, Bon (anti-communist) and Man (secret communist), spend one more time together before parting ways. Along with the General and chosen officers, he urgently leaves with Bon and his family -- wife Linh and son Duc--to board an evacuation plane.
As they prepare to depart, the Narrator shares his struggle with identifying as the son of French and Vietnamese parents. He was hated by both French occupants and the Vietnamese, often nicknaming him “bastard.” As an Amerasian, individuals like him were considered the “dust of life” because they did not have a place in any ethnic group. This is also the reason he eventually befriended Man, Bon, and the General who never sneered about his heritage. In addition to his half-caste identity, the Narrator was educated in America, where he learned to speak perfect English and about the American ways of life. However, he finds America too obsessed with “super” terms--superhighway, supermarkets, superman, and Super Bowl-- as ways to feel superior or super-powerful as a country. This is the same country that forced Vietnam to adapt to 10 years of living in an economy dependent entirely on U.S. imports. Though America’s biggest fault, he claims, is how it went to great lengths to split Vietnam in half and gave rise to the war.
When the Narrator’s group finally reaches their evacuation plane, it gets shot down by the incoming communist army closing in on the airport. He, the General, Madame (General’s wife), and Bon finally make it onto the last remaining plane, but Linh and Duc were unable to reach the same fate and ultimately die in Bon’s arms. Once the group lands in Guam, they are trucked off to a few refugee camps before being sponsored and settling in Los Angeles, California. It was in this time that the General shares with the narrator about potential spies in their rank, sleeper agents-- a shocking discussion for he was the General’s unsuspected, communist target. Then the Narrator obtains a job working in the office of his former college professor, Mr. Hammer. He meets his co-worker, Ms. Mori, and the two immediately form a close, intimate relationship. She confesses how people view her as the stereotypical Asian girl--sexy and subservient like the “Suzie Wong” character. This issue is still prevalent in modern times in a sense that the typical Asian woman is portrayed as petite, erotic, and subordinate across media--a common misrepresentation of Asian women. Mori also brings up another important issue about authenticity when someone guilts her for being a nisei (2nd-generation Japanese) who forgot her culture and has not visited her homeland. Often times, Asian Americans, particularly immigrants, are questioned about keeping ties to their cultural roots intact. However, individuals like she who have lived their whole lives in America tend to identify more with their national identity, which is another struggle in convincing white peers that they’re equally American.
As the Narrator’s journey continues, he is ordered to kill someone from their group whom the General is convinced to be communist spy: the Major. During the grand opening of the General’s liquor store, he runs into Sonny, a journalist he attended college with who works for the local Vietnamese newspaper. Although they shared similar communists ideology and values, he is almost surprised at how differently their paths have led them. After the celebration passed, the Narrator spends time with the Major at a restaurant, and learns that his family is struggling to get by in America and cope with their new identities as “foreigners.” His wife blames him for everything: “Why didn’t we stay at home? What are we doing here where we’re poorer than before? Why did we have a kid we can’t afford to feed?” (92). As the Major continues to share, he wonders how a man who possesses such innocence could be a communist informant.
When the Narrator expresses his concerns about potentially murdering an innocent person, Bon insists that they trust the General’s judgement. He explains that their mission is not a killing, but simply an assassination, which is more than familiar during wartime. Sensing his blood brother’s shock, Bon confesses that the only way for him to feel purpose in his life again is to complete the mission: “I can either kill myself or I can kill someone else” (94). Even after Bon’s reasoning and the General’s demands, the Narrator still secretly questions the action of killing the Major. He struggles to see the boundary between barbarism and civilization, to kill or let live. As Hegal said, “tragedy was not the conflict between right and wrong, but right and right,” and this is an enigma one cannot escape (98). Although the Major has the right to live, the Narrator’s secret mission is to remain undercover, even if it means killing an innocent person.
On the fourth of July, he and Bon set out to kill the Major. As the city’s fireworks bursts loudly in the background, he approaches the Major and gives him a bag with firecrackers and oranges, which is a cue for Bon to shoot him from behind. However, to their surprise, Bon calls after the Major to capture his final attention before ending his life. Although they successfully carried out their task, the Narrator cannot help but feel extreme guilt afterwards, sensing the Major’s ghost in his presence
Following the Major’s demise, the Narrator and Mori attends a Vietnamese wedding. There, he senses some familiarity with the singer, who he eventually realizes is the General’s oldest daughter, Lan. Now known by her American name, “Lana,” she had left Vietnam to attend UC Berkeley on a scholarship, despite her parents disapproval of a university they classify as communist and rebellious. Each time she returned to Vietnam for vacation, Lana replaced a piece of what she once was with her new American sensibilities until she became a complete foreigner to her parents. Lana’s relationship with her parents became estranged, and she ultimately decided to remain in the U.S. as a singer. Watching her perform, he cannot help but notice how different she is from the Lan he knew--not just in her appearance but also in her voice and song choices, which lack the tinge of war-sadness and loss that others felt.
During the wedding reception, Congressman Clark Gable for Orange County pays a surprise visit to express his advocacy for Vietnamese immigrants. Unlike the common ambivalence and distaste towards the refugees for disrupting the Yin/Yang (Black/White America) symmetry and being constant reminders of America’s defeat, Gable congratulates the new marriage on U.S. soil and declares his support in helping the people live their “American Dreams.”The crowd chants “Vietnam Muon Nam” to display their approval. Sonny comments that Gable’s slogan is the same as that of the communist party, to which Mori responds, “a slogan is just an empty suit, anyone can wear it” (115). To her, this political message is just “typical white man behavior” to gain the people’s support. Asians will always be expected to speak perfect English and to assimilate, and despite their years of U.S.-residency, they will continue to be regarded as “foreigners.”
Later on, the Narrator joins Madame and the General to meet Congressman Gable for lunch. The couple discuss their shame in Lana losing her Vietnamese values-- equating her “singer” role to “communist”-- and criticize the lack of moral responsibility among Americans. Gable agrees with their concerns and swear his priority in regulating Hollywood’s movies and music, which are responsible for perpetuating those ideas. However, he argues that “this is not censorship, only advice with teeth” and asks the Narrator to help provide accurate insight for a Vietnam War movie, The Hamlet (119).
In meeting Violet, the movie director’s assistant, the Narrator already gets a taste of the film when she makes assumptions and labels him as a typical, yellow, inferior Asian man. Although he is Eurasian, it did not matter because in America, it was all or none; either you were white or you weren’t (123). Once he meets the director/Auteur, the Narrator demonstrates how to act culturally correct as Vietnamese characters. However, the Auteur dismisses his suggestions and insists that movies do not need to be realistic, just what the audience thinks is realistic. On the way home, he concludes that this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, which is the most efficient propaganda ever created (129).
Despite the disagreements, the Narrator is asked to return and help make the movie more “culturally realistic.” In order to ensure that the Vietnamese people are appropriately displayed in the media, he decides to accept the job. Once at the movie set, he acquires Vietnamese background actors and ask them about the current conditions in Vietnam. Contrast to Man’s words about how the country is positively rebuilding, the actor explains that although foreigners are no longer victimizing and terrorizing the Vietnamese citizens as they did during the war, we are now carrying out the same deeds to our own people. Clearly, Vietnam is not in the state the Narrator thought it was in.
For the next visit on the movie set, the Auteur effected some changes and adds three Vietnamese characters with actual speaking parts to the story: Binh, Mai, and Danny Boy-- siblings who have lost their parents to “King Cong” (the ill-portrayed Viet Cong). Binh is the older brother who serves as a translator for the American military, and Mai is the younger sister who falls in love with an American Sergeant and is then raped by King Cong. Having lost his entire family, their youngest brother, Danny Boy, is ultimately sent to live with the family of Mai’s American lover. After learning about these new changes, the Narrator is surprised that the actors for the characters are not actually Vietnamese. The excuse is that there “weren’t any qualified Vietnamese actors” for the roles so they hired other Asians instead. The fact that his own people cannot represent themselves in the media really struck a chord with him and hints at feelings of hopelessness. Furthermore, he learns that Yoon, the actor playing “Binh,” is a Korean American who is known as the “Asian Everyman”-- an actor whose face most people would know but whose name they could not recall. Not only does the Narrator realize the difficulties in getting accurate or any representation of the Vietnamese people, but he also begins to understand that the presence of Asians in the entertainment world does not translate to how America values them.
Aside from the film, the General shares increasing headlines from newspapers about refugees’ boat experiences: “Drowning! Pillage! Rape! Cannibalism!” (155). He claims that these news stories are evidence that Communist Vietnam is undergoing a purge. This, however, is the first time that the Narrator is aware of such happenings in the homeland, so he wonders what would compel the refugees to escape by sea. In a letter to Man’s aunt, he asks if these stories are true or simply propaganda. Although he has questioned the communist agenda and revolutionary purposes before, these thoughts continue to manifest.
With the continuation of the film production, they run into some problems. For one, all of the extras are reluctant to play the role of the Viet Cong, even if it meant only playing in character once. To these American actors, the stigma of communism causes them to fear any sort of association, especially when the scenes of torturing Binh and raping Mai are so repugnant. Eventually, the Narrator helps convince them with increased pay just in time for the shoot. While the rape scene is being set up, another problem arises when the narrator asks the Auteur if this heavy-handed scene is necessary for the storyline. Annoyed, the Auteur claims that rape happens during war and it is his obligation to give the audience this shock treatment. He goes on to call the Narrator a sellout for disagreeing and a loser for helping the white man. Although he admits to being a loser, he argues that it is only because he believed in America’s promises to Vietnam.
The heated argument eventually reaches a standstill and they continue on with filming. Another problem emerges when the Auteur orders the Viet Cong actors to “act as natural as possible” in the scene with Binh, which meant torturing him and appearing as if they are enjoying it (159). With a very unclear script, they are left to do whatever they thought would fit the scene, even if that meant being extremely sadistic. The actors berate and act as brutally possible to Binh/Yoon, who puts up with the agony in order to not risk his only chance at a supporting-actor Oscar award. By the end of the scene, however, Yoon is completely lachrymose with pain. This whole occurrence was especially sensitive for the Narrator, triggering flashbacks of past encounters with his captured communist comrades.
In a later movie scene, the Narrator is injured by an accidental explosion on set. At the hospital, the Vietnamese extras thank him for speaking on their behalf to the Auteur to receive better work benefits/conditions. Due to his role as a spy, he has never experienced this sort of positive recognition in helping others before, but now that he has, it feels very rewarding. When the filming was completed, he discovers that the General plans to send a reconnaissance team to Thailand that will link up with their forward base and reconnoiter a path overland to Vietnam. While Bon is put on the team, the Narrator is asked to stay and raise funding through the Congressman’s network. Meanwhile, he receives compensation from the movie for his assistance and injuries, which he donates to the Major’s widow instead of using it for revolutionary purposes. At this point, it is evident the Narrator is beginning to shift his perspectives as he navigates the war’s legacy. However, while he developed in character with the filmwork, he also lost his love connection with Mori, who moved on with Sonny.
Some time has passed and the General’s army is growing in momentum. The volunteers were easily convinced to join the Movement, wanting to be recognized and remembered for their efforts in reviving a lost homeland (214). Soon after, the General sees news headlines about alleged operations between the Fraternity and his Movement group. These organizations helped get money and people for the General to make his fight back to Vietnam a reality. In any case, he and the General conclude that it is Sonny’s doing. However, the Narrator is also blamed for being too sympathetic of people who can potentially become ruin their future. Because of all the blame and stress, he and Bon decides to check out a revue called Fantasia, which included Lana. From Lana’s beautiful singing and attractiveness, he builds up the confidence to converse with her and notices how different she is from the Asian female stereotype, being progressive and openly expressive about her opinions. Because of Lana’s open personality, she and Bon reminisced about Saigon, and for the first time since the Narrator, he reveals to her about the death of his wife and son.
Meanwhile, the General orders the Narrator to join his army group to Vietnam, but Man advises his friend to not. To see if he has the guts to do what needs to be done once in Thailand or Vietnam, the General challenges him to kill Sonny. To plan the murder, he consults with Bon and Lana, which brings up past desires to kill his father who never acknowledged him as his son. Once he arrives at Sonny’s place, Sonny brings up Mori, teasing him for having lost his girlfriend. The Narrator avoids that conversation and reveals his status as an undercover communist. He does this to make the killing easier--to give himself a reason to exterminate Sonny. He quickly shoots Sonny and then-- from Bon’s advice--once more in the head to ensure death.
After the assassination, the Narrator feels haunted by the Major and Sonny. Before leaving to Thailand, he apologizes to Man for disregarding his advisement, but explains that he is following with the plan to make sure Bon remains alive throughout the trip. He then watches The Hamlet and notices they had omitted his name from the credits, a failure on the director’s part to make the film reflective of the Vietnamese people. On the way to the anti-communist headquarters, the General and Madame bid farewell to the group, but reveals knowing about his affair with Lana, blatantly declaring they would never allow a “bastard” to be with their daughter. By the time the group arrives at headquarters and review their plan to sneak into Vietnam, Bon confesses doubts in making any sort of revolutionary impact, yet he will just follow them to kill as many communists.
The next night, the reconnaissance team trek through the southern part of Laos toward Vietnam. They stop to take a rest and unexpectedly set off a hidden mine, ultimately blowing up one of the group members. As the group travels onward, the Major’s and Sonny’s ghosts appear to haunt the Narrator again. By the time the team reaches the Mekong River, they are ambushed by an unknown party. Bon cries out for the third time to his friend, in quiet defeat. The Narrator had succeeded in saving Bon after all, but only from death (295). The irony is that there was so many refugees that would die just to cross the Mekong River from Vietnam to Thailand to escape from the communist regime, but this group (Narrator and Bon) is willing to die to go towards Vietnam to get killed.
A year after the ambush, the Narrator is imprisoned in a “hellhole” apart from the General’s army group and finally faces the Commandant. There, he has been forced to write confessions to prove that he is progressing in his “reeducation.”As the now identified Commandant explains, the whole purpose of reeducation is for prisoners to understand the sorrows and pain that Vietnam has experienced:
“Not satisfied with the camp and your chamber? This is nothing compared to what I went through in Laos. That’s why I’m also puzzled by the unhappiness of some of our guests. You think I’m feigning perplexity, but no, I’m genuinely surprised. We haven’t stuck them in a box underground. We haven’t shackled them until their legs waste away. We haven’t poured lime on their heads and beaten them bloody. Instead, we let them farm their own food, build their own homes, breathe fresh air, see sunlight, and work to transform this countryside. Compare that to how their American allies poisoned this place. No trees. Nothing grows. Unexploded mines and bombs killing and maiming innocents… I try to bring these comparisons up with our guests and I can see the disbelief in their eyes even as they agree with me (302).”
Reading this statement, I personally sympathize for the people in charge of the prison. Every single person there, including the prison guards, has in some way experienced pain and torture that isn’t expressed towards one another, which is a perspective the prisoners don’t understand yet. People like the Commandant have seen all methods of torture--things beyond comprehension--that in his perspective, make of their harsh methods seem almost like freedom. The Commandant asserts another reasoning that only a prisoner like the Narrator can understand:
“I can’t get them to understand that they get more calories per day than the revolutionary soldier during the war, more than the peasants forced into refugee camps. They believe they are being victimized here, instead of being reeducated. This shows how much more reeducation they need (304).”
In relation to modern times, this statement illustrates how Anti-communists in the U.S. today often have their own justified perspective of hating the communists; however, even the anti-communists have their own sensible idea that is only judged in a state of a different perspective. With that, he is led to the Commissar, the highest person in command. It was only when they stood face-to-face that he finally realizes that the person before him is Man; however, he is in a state of complete deformity due to a napalm injury. The cost of surviving was an unrecognizable, burnt body and the constant need for morphine to endure the pain. Man leads his best friend to an actual place of torture, meant for “experimental reeducation.” The Narrator undergoes a series of abuse--no sleep, blinding lights, truth serum, and lastly electrical impulses in order to keep him awake-- until he gives the communists what they want: the last unknown detail in his confessions that only torture can reveal. Only until he confesses will the narrator be absolutely “reeducated.”
Eventually, he becomes aware of the sought-out memory: an early experience with a female, communist spy who compromised her identity. The Narrator at the time was still acting as the General’s right-hand man and kept his identity safe. However, the cost of his secret was the life of a comrade whose fate was within his control. The communists wanted him to confess the mistake of standing by to watch their enemy torture her. Moreover, the communists’ series of torture succeeded in fully re-educating the Narrator, essentially ripping his spirit into two, with the living person inside him now a newly wiped human. Despite all that has happened, Man feels guilty for inflicting the pain to his blood brother and offers a pistol to end both of their personal sufferings. Instead of death, the Narrator begins therapy to become sane but also shaped to be absolutely pro-communist. He slowly reads his own confession paper as if it was written by someone else, and feels sympathy for this unknown man with two minds (i.e., himself). From this whole experience, he learns one underlying theme:
“While nothing is more precious than independence and freedom, *nothing* is also more precious than independence and freedom (360).”
In the end, Man goes to lengths to help his two friends get out of Vietnam alive. Now a part of the boat people heading towards the next life, the Narrator will find a way to live on and share his story to the world.
Questions to Consider
- What would have happened to the Narrator if he hadn’t gone on the mission to Vietnam? Would he have been “safer” in the U.S. or perhaps subject to the General’s own form of torture for not following through with the revolution?
- What was Man's side of the story during the Narrator's entire journey and series of confessions?
Nguyen, Viet Thanh. The Sympathizer. New York: Grove Press, 2015. Print.
Shimizu, Yuko. "NY Times Book Review Cover The Sympathizer." Yuko Shimizu. N.p., 5 Apr. 2015. Web. 12 Mar. 2016. <http://yukoart.com/work/ny-times-book-review-cover-the-sympathizer/?work_subject=books>.