The Sympathizer Summary & Study Guide

Viet Thanh Nguyen
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The Sympathizer Summary & Study Guide Description

The Sympathizer Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

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"The Sympathizer," by Viet Thanh Nguyen, is the story of a communist spy who is conflicted about where he stands within his political beliefs and in the world itself. His efforts to survive in two worlds at once lead him to make mistakes that end in his capture and torture at the hands of one of the people he most trusts.

When the story begins, the narrator, who remains unnamed throughout the novel, is being held captive and forced to write his confession for the commandant. He begins his confession at a point in time when he is still in Vietnam and Saigon is about to fall. The narrator lives in Vietnam with the General, whom he has been assigned to spy on. He lives in the General's villa with the General's wife and children.

When the General decides it is time to leave Vietnam, he asks the narrator to compile a list of evacuees that will leave with them, but the list must be limited to a certain number since there will only be so much room on the plane. The General isn't happy about the limit because he would like to take his entire staff with him. The narrator's handler, Man, one of his two best friends, orders the narrator to go with the General, so the narrator includes his own name on the list as well as that of his other best friend, Bon. Man is a communist while Bon is a patriot. Bon does not know that Man and the narrator are communists.

As the evacuees prepare to board a plane to leave Vietnam they are attacked and Bon's wife and young son are killed, leaving him despondent. The evacuation is delayed, but the refugees eventually fly to Guam where they stay at a refugee camp. From there they travel to America and the narrator and Bon live in an apartment together in Los Angeles. The General and his wife, Madame, also live in Los Angeles.

The General opens a liquor store and hires Bon to work there. The narrator works in the Department of Oriental Studies at a university. While working at the college, the narrator begins a casual sexual relationship with Ms. Mori, a Japanese-American who works with him. (The reader should note the use of the term "Oriental" in this guide is to be consistent with the time period in which the story is set before the term was no longer politically correct.)

The General becomes worried that there might be a spy among them and asks the narrator which of the men around them could be a spy. In an effort to hide his own identity as a spy, the narrator reaches for a name and gives the General the name of the crapulent major. In time, the General becomes convinced that the major is indeed a spy and orders the narrator to kill him. Bon helps with the assassination and it's the first time Bon has seemed happy since coming to America.

The General begins to rebuild his army and makes plans to return to Vietnam to fight the communists. He forms an organization referred to as the Fraternity to help fund the movement. He and his wife also open a restaurant to help with the funding. The General enlists the help of the Congressman, who supports the Vietnamese refugees, to garner funding.

One of the Congressman's pet projects is closer monitoring of movies. The Congressman invites the General to review the script of a new movie about the war in Vietnam. The General assigns the task to the narrator. The narrator reviews the script and tells the Auteur that the script is not authentic. There are no speaking parts for Vietnamese characters. The Auteur is at first angry, but then accepts the criticism and invites the narrator to come to the Philippines where the movie is being shot so that he can manage the Vietnamese people who will be extras. The narrator goes to the Philippines where he hires the extras from among the boat people. Although the Auteur does add three speaking parts for Vietnamese characters, the actors playing these characters are not Vietnamese. They are from other Asian cultures. The narrator does not feel like he's made any real change in the movie and he and the Auteur again argue. When the final scenes of the movie are about to be shot, the narrator goes to the realistic cemetery set one last time to visit a tombstone he has marked as his mother's. There is an explosion and the narrator is injured. He is certain the Auteur is responsible for the explosion. He returns to America and gives the money he made working on the movie to the crapulent major's widow.

Before going to the Philippines, the narrator is reunited with his college acquaintance, Sonny, a Vietnamese man who is a newspaper reporter. While the narrator is in the Philippines, Sonny begins a romantic relationship with Ms. Mori. Sonny writes stories about the death of the major and the war that anger the General. The General orders the narrator to assassinate Sonny, which he does.

When the General decides it is time to send troops back to Vietnam, the narrator volunteers to go along so that he can try to keep Bon, who has also volunteered, from getting himself killed. His return to Vietnam is against Man's orders since Man has told him to remain in America to continue watching the General. In Vietnam, Bon and the narrator are captured and placed in a communist reeducation camp.

While in the camp, the narrator is forced to write his confession. He writes more than two hundred pages, but still the commandant and the commissar, whom he has not met, aren't satisfied. When the narrator finally meets the commissar he's shocked to learn that it is Man and that Man's face has been burned off by napalm. Man orders the torture of the narrator to help him remember something he's omitted from his confession.

After days of torture, the narrator admits he sat by and did nothing when a female communist agent was captured with a list of communist agents stuffed into her mouth. He sat by as the agent was raped and tortured. After the narrator admits this, Man pays for the narrator and Bon to be released from the camp. Bon and the narrator join the boat people as they leave Vietnam for the last time.

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