The Sympathizer Summary and Study Guide

Viet Thanh Nyguen

The Sympathizer

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The Sympathizer Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 52-page guide for “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nyguen includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 23 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Duality and Contradiction and The Malleable Nature of Time and Memory.

Plot Summary

The Sympathizer is an historical spy novel told in the first-person by an unnamed half-French, half-Vietnamese narrator. The story unfolds as the narrator’s confession to a man referred to as the Commandant.

The narrator begins his story with the fall of Saigon, where he is the aide-de-camp to a high-ranking General in the Special Branch, the central intelligence organization of the anti-Communist South Vietnamese Army. Quickly, we learn that the narrator is not all he appears to be: as one of the most trusted members of the General’s inner circle, the narrator is actually a Communist spy sent to observe all activity of the Special Branch in America. While technically the battle in Vietnam has ended, the larger war to rid Vietnam of Communism rages on.

After a narrow escape from Saigon, the narrator relocates to Los Angeles, along with the General and his family. Bon, one of the narrator’s two childhood best friends, also makes it to Los Angeles, but tragically, Bon’s wife and toddler are killed in the chaos during the evacuation. Man, the second of the narrator’s childhood best friends, remains in Vietnam as Saigon falls, where he will help usher in the new Communist regime. Like the narrator, Man is a Communist and North Vietnamese revolutionary; despite the intimacy among these three men, Bon does not know that the narrator and Man are Communists. Referring to themselves as the “Three Musketeers,” they are blood brothers (with the scars on their palms to prove it) that would do anything for each other.

In Los Angeles, the narrator becomes a low-level assistant at the Department of Oriental Studies, where he meets Ms. Mori, a middle-aged Japanese woman who also works in the department. Ms. Mori and the narrator strike up a casual romantic/sexual relationship, bonding with each other over the peculiarities of life as an Asian in America. The narrator also reacquaints himself with Sonny, a former classmate from Occidental College who currently is the editor of a local newspaper. All during his time in Los Angeles, the narrator secretly communicates with Man via a letter writing system that employs invisible ink. The narrator keeps Man and the Communists apprised of the General’s plans for a counterrevolution in Vietnam.

The General does not adjust well to his new life in Los Angeles and begins assembling a group of Vietnamese expats who will return to the country by way of Thailand in a covert operation to regain control of the region. To raise funds for this mission (and to give him and his family some semblance of a normal, American life), the General becomes a small business owner and opens a liquor store. The General also befriends an American congressman, a Republican who wants to win the Vietnamese vote, a new, but growing, demographic in California. The General confides to the narrator that he believes there is a Communist sympathizer in their midst there in Los Angeles. The narrator suggests that an innocuous, crapulent major is the spy, mostly to turn suspicion away from himself. The General accepts his suggestion, enlisting the narrator to plan the logistics of the murder, while Bon will be the one to shoot him. Though the narrator has reservations about murdering an innocent man, he and Bon move forward with their plot, and the crapulent major is shot and killed just outside of his home.

Still reeling with guilt from the assassination of the crapulent major, the narrator is presented with an opportunity: Through the Congressman’s Hollywood connections, the narrator is asked to serve as advisor on a movie called The Hamlet, which will be filmed in the Philippines. The narrator goes with the intention of making sure that the Vietnamese people are represented accurately, but he soon discovers the director, known as the Auteur, is making a movie with Americans at the center of the story. Vietnamese people, and their concerns, are secondary. The Auteur does not take the narrator’s criticisms kindly, so when the narrator is hurt in an “accidental” explosion on the movie set, everyone suspects that the Auteur was responsible. The narrator is paid a settlement fee from the movie studio to prevent him from suing, and returns to Los Angeles, dejected that he failed to make an impact on the movie.

In Los Angeles, the General escalates his plans to send the commando group of Vietnamese soldiers to infiltrate their country via the jungles of Thailand. Bon volunteers to go on this extraordinarily dangerous mission, so the narrator tells the General he wants to go as well, so he can help protect Bon. When Sonny begins reporting on this covert mission in his newspaper, potentially exposing their mission, the General has the narrator assassinate Sonnythis is the narrator’s first murder. Having proven that he is worthy of battle via the murder of Sonny, the General agrees to send the narrator with Bon to Thailand.

In Thailand, the covert troop is found by Communist forces after only a day and a half. The entire group is killed in the ambush, with the exception of the narrator and Bon, who are taken to a Communist “reeducation camp.” The narrator is placed in solitary confinement, where he has been writing his confessionthe first 307 pages of The Sympathizer—for the last year.

The Commandant, who has been overseeing the editing and re-editing of his confession, tells the narrator that it is finally nearly sufficient. Under the supervision of the Commissar, the Commandant’s superior, the narrator will enter the next, final stage of his reeducation.

We find out Manisthe Commissar and the final phase of reeducation is a brutal, sleep deprivation torture. Despite their lifelong friendship, Man must torture the narrator, ironically, as the only way to save the narrator’s life. The narrator is bound and gagged, prevented from sleeping in order to access little-used parts of his brain where things he has forgotten lurk, to complete the missing parts of his confession. After a few days without sleep, the narrator begins to become unhinged, and in doing so remembers a long-repressed memory: he witnessed the brutal torture and gang rape of a female Communist agent, someone whom he helped to arrest and whom he failed to save. The narrator starts to fully disassociate after another stretch of time without sleep, but he does eventually answer Man’s riddle to set him free, “What is more precious than independence and freedom?” By the end of the torture, the narrator is driven completely mad and the novel ends with the narrator joining the “boat people,” heading out to sea.

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Chapters 1-3