The Sympathizer Summary

The Sympathizer is a 2015 novel narrated by an unnamed man working as a double agent during and after the Vietnam War.

  • While serving as an aide-de-camp to a South Vietnamese general, the narrator also secretly collects information for Man, a Northern operative and his childhood friend.
  • After the Fall of Saigon, the narrator, his friend Bon, and the General settle in Los Angeles, where the narrator is tasked with assassinating a major and a journalist.
  • The narrator accompanies Bon on an overseas mission, during which he is captured by North Vietnamese forces, tortured, and forced to write a confession.

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Last Updated on April 7, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1322

The Sympathizer is a 2015 novel by Viet Thanh Nyugen. It focuses on the experiences of a man working as a double agent during and after the Vietnam War. The novel takes the form of a written confession, addressed to a superior referred to only as "the commandant."

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Publicly, the book's narrator occupies a high position in the Southern Vietnamese forces. He's the aide-de-camp to a man known as "the General," facilitating military operations as his trusted confidant. In secret, he's also gathering intelligence for a Northern operative named Man, the narrator's close friend since childhood.

The characters are introduced at a critical point in history: the defeat of Southern forces during the Fall of Saigon. Fearing for their lives after the South's defeat, the General and the narrator make arrangements for the evacuation of their closest associates. Among the evacuees is Bon, the third of the narrator's trio of childhood friends. Unlike Man, Bon is sincere in his Southern allegiance and does not know of either friends' secret activities.

They board the plane and it begins to taxi, but soon an explosion sets it off course. They've been attacked, Bon realizes, by their own allies—Southerners, desperate for evacuation and furious at having been left behind. When another plane arrives, they rush to board it as gunfire rains down. In the frenzy, Bon's wife, Linh, and his son, Duc, are killed.

The survivors eventually settle in Southern California, and the narrator reestablishes contact with Man. The General, suspecting that there may be an informer in the ranks, asks who he might suspect. Desperate to avoid suspicion, the narrator offers a name that he hopes will distract the General for a little while—the major.

The first year passes somewhat uneventfully. The narrator, having spent his college years in the United States in order to better understand the enemy, adjusts quickly to Los Angeles. Soon, he's sharing an apartment with Bon; working at his alma mater; conducting an affair with his colleague, Ms. Sofia Mori; and begrudgingly accepting the presence of Sonny, a college acquaintance now working as a journalist.

One day, the General summons the narrator and tells him that he wants him to kill the major. Bon, reenergized for the first time since the evacuation, insists on being the one to pull the trigger. The narrator guiltily tries to convince the major to move away, but the major declines. That Fourth of July, they shoot the major in the head and allow fireworks to conceal the sound of the gun.

At a fellow refugee's wedding, the narrator is shocked to see yet another familiar face: Lana, the General's daughter, is singing on stage. Now that she is fully grown, he finds her mesmerizing, but soon the stage is overtaken by a new spectacle: a congressman, courting the support of the Vietnamese community, giving a patriotic speech about their alliance. At a lunch the following week with the General, his wife, and the narrator, the congressman offers the narrator an interesting proposition: he has friends in Hollywood who are making a movie about the conflict in Vietnam, and they need a cultural consultant.

The narrator accepts and soon finds himself annotating a script for the famous Auteur. When presented with his corrections, however, the Auteur is incensed at being questioned and throws the narrator out of the meeting. A week later, he reconsiders and offers him a consulting role on location.

During this same time period, the narrator learns two troubling pieces of news: the General is starting to grow concerned about Sonny, who is questioning the coverup story about the major's death, and the Southern forces are starting to quietly rebuild. To redirect funds toward the effort, the General starts a nonprofit organization.

The narrator flies to the Philippines to consult on the movie set, and despite their theoretical reconciliation, his relationship with the Auteur remains adversarial. He's especially dismayed to find that advocating for more complex Vietnamese roles has only further complicated the lack of representation—the Auteur has added several Vietnamese characters at his suggestion but has cast actors of Filipino, Korean American, and British Chinese heritage to play them.

Toward the end of filming, the narrator is injured by a demolitions incident on set. He wakes up in a hospital room, where he's visited by a lawyer representing the Auteur. For the sum of $10,000, the lawyer pays him to release the Auteur of any culpability, and he returns home to Los Angeles. He gives half the money to the major's widow and then makes an impromptu visit to see Sofia Mori. On arrival, he's crushed to find Sonny at her apartment—in his absence, the two have begun a relationship.

The General continues his work on his military revival and now has a crew of two hundred ready to participate. Knowing it's futile, the narrator tries to keep Bon from joining the mission. If he can't, he decides, he'll just have to go, too.

As the General becomes more focused on Sonny, the narrator becomes more focused on Lana. He speaks to her after a performance one night, and the two soon begin seeing each other, a secret that they've both decided to keep from Lana’s father.

Skeptical that the narrator, whose gifts are in communication and intelligence, could be as valuable on the guerilla expedition as he is at the General's side, the General offers him a bargain to test his grit: if he takes care of Sonny, he can go. Mustering all his courage, the narrator accepts—he visits Sonny, who invites him into his home assuming he'd like to talk about Ms. Mori. In a change of heart, the narrator tries to confess. Sonny doesn't believe him, and when the two argue, the narrator inexpertly shoots him. After a few tries, Sonny is finally killed.

Struggling with his mental health after Sonny's murder, the narrator is relieved to ship out for the overseas mission. With Bon and two other operatives, the narrator departs, but on his way out he learns some troubling news: the General and his wife, Madame, know about Lana, and they're incredibly upset with him.

Landing in Thailand, the narrator and Bon stop to see the Auteur's movie, which is playing nearby. To the narrator's dismay, not only is the movie propagandistic and exploitative, but he's been left out of the credits.

Delivered the following day to a camp near the Lao border, both men soon find themselves on a reconnaissance mission. They set out as a group of twelve, but one steps on a landmine as they settle in for their first night in the wilds. It turns out to be a small interruption by comparison—as they float a raft across a river, they're ambushed, and the narrator and Bon are both taken prisoner.

They're taken to a reeducation camp, where the narrator spends a year writing and rewriting his confession under the critical eye of an unnamed commandant. When it's finally satisfactory, he's taken to see the secretive commissar and realizes he's looking at an old friend with a new face: Man, who has been disfigured by napalm.

The commissar, intent on recovering his friend's lost memories, subjects him to torture similar to what the narrator has, himself, inflicted on others. Eventually, using experimental methods to "split" a person's consciousness, he succeeds: the narrator has repressed memories of his inaction in the face of unconscionable cruelty, including a brutal sexual assault against a fellow double agent he failed to protect. Doing nothing, he realizes, can make one as culpable as doing something.

Left mentally broken after his ordeal, the narrator—now identifying as a man of dual consciousness, eventually adopting the pronoun "we"—begins to recover, and the commissar arranges safe passage out of the country when he's ready for release. The narrator is at last reunited with Bon, the novel closes as the two prepare for departure.

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