The Sympathizer

by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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Last Updated on April 7, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 836

The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nyugen's Pulitzer Prize–winning 2015 novel, tells the story of a man working as a spy during and after the Vietnam War.

The narrative opens with the Fall of Saigon. The narrator—conspicuously unnamed—is embedded undercover in the Southern Vietnamese forces as the aide-de-camp to a man known only as "the General." This position is ideal—the narrator is, secretly, a spy for the North. His rank as a captain affords him ready access to Southern intelligence, which he covertly transmits to Man, his handler and childhood friend.

The majority of the book is structured as a written confession, told from his first-person perspective and addressed to a nameless superior he calls "the commandant." This has a framing effect in the traditional sense, in that the past-tense narration assures the reader that the narrator survives the ordeals to come, but it also creates a sense of foreboding. For the narrator to be writing a confession to a commandant, he must have been captured. Sure enough, the reader soon learns that he has: he's in a reeducation camp run by the very communist regime he's been secretly spying for.

Despite the conditions of his manuscript's creation, the narrator's tone throughout the text is genial, wry, and playful. His brutally honest, candid confession is peppered with jokes, witticisms, and long-winded discursive tangents on everything from communist philosophy to women to soup.

Nyugen's use of this inviting linguistic style is, to some degree, a trick played on the reader. The narrator is a man of deeply complicated moral standing, but the reader can't help but like him. In one of the book's later chapters, it transpires that all the personality and charm infused into the text make the confession inadmissible. The narrator's tone is too individualistic, which is seen by the commandant as an inherently Western and capitalistic flaw.

During this rejection, it's revealed that the prior pages are just one of many drafts, suggesting to the reader that the narrator may be unreliable. It's at this moment—when the commandant and the narrator begin to debate the confession's legitimacy in the present tense—that the book's structure begins to shift noticeably. What previously seemed like a straightforward first-person narrative has become self-referential and malleable.

Nyugen plays with this structural malleability in the chapters that follow. The narrator has insisted throughout the book's pages that he finds it easy to shift between perspectives, and soon the chapter perspectives begin to shift, too—one chapter is told in the third person, from the perspective of the narrator's consciousness floating above his body and passively watching the scene below. In another, the narrator's consciousness splits, and he shifts from using the singular first-person "I" to narrating as "we."

Nyugen makes a unique characterization choice in addition to his structural ones: many of the characters in The Sympathizer are never given names. This includes the protagonist, but also many of the characters in his daily life—his boss is only ever called "the General," and the General's wife is simply "Madame." The narrator is tasked with the assassination of a fellow veteran, referred to only as "the major" or, more often, "the crapulent major." The narrator fights with "the Auteur" on a movie set and befriends "the philosophical medic" during a reconnaissance mission.

This lack of names has the effect of distancing the narrator from the majority of those around him, casting them as archetypal, expendable stand-ins for a type of person as much as they represent a specific character. A reader might assume there to be some deliberate irony on behalf of the author here—one of the narrator's...

(This entire section contains 836 words.)

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major conflicts arises when he's contracted by the Auteur to consult on a major Hollywood movie about the Vietnam War. Pushing back against the original script, the narrator advocates for the addition of speaking roles for Vietnamese characters.

The Auteur concedes and adds several Vietnamese characters to the cast. Citing a lack of qualified Vietnamese actors, he hires a Filipino man, a Korean American man, and a British Chinese woman to play the roles. Though the narrator was the one who lobbied for their addition, they’re treated as every bit as interchangeable and expendable as the unnamed characters within the narrator's confession.

Though The Sympathizer is a work of fiction, the book's Acknowledgements section reveals some telling information about the movie subplot that canny readers may already have speculated about: among his many historical sources, Nyugen explicitly cites a wide array of texts about the production of the 1979 film Apocalypse Now.

In chapter 8, the narrator makes an observation of the Auteur that, more broadly, can be considered vital criticism of Vietnam War–related media at large:

His arrogance marked something new in the world, for this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created.

With this historic context established, readers might interpret The Sympathizer as Nyugen's own submission toward correcting the record.