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Literature / The Sympathizer

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The Sympathizer is a 2015 novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

The story opens with the unnamed narrator, an aide-de-camp to a similarly unnamed General in the army of South Vietnam. In 1975, as South Vietnam is collapsing, the narrator manages to get the General on a flight out of the country. Also getting out of the country is Bon, the narrator's best friend and an anti-communist zealot. The three of them eventually make it to America and attempt to start new lives in exile.

What neither Bon nor the General know is that the narrator is a deep-cover Communist spy for the North Vietnamese. His other best friend, his handler Man, prevails on him to continue his mission in the United States, spying on the South Vietnamese exile community on behalf of the government of now-united Vietnam. It turns out to be a wise precaution, as the General, unable to adjust to his diminished status in America—he owns a liquor store—elects to assemble an army of volunteers and invade Vietnam.

The novel was later adapted into a mini-series co-developed and directed by Park Chan-wook for A24, which is scheduled to release on HBO in 2024.


  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: Sofia Mori takes up with Sonny while the narrator is in the Philippines, working on The Movie. The narrator admits that he didn't write to her.
  • Added Alliterative Appeal: The narrator resorts to this when ruminating on his love/hate relationship with the United States.
    "America, land of supermarkets and superhighways, of supersonic jets and Superman, of supercarriers and the Super Bowl!"
  • The Alcoholic: It becomes clear that the narrator is this when he is wracked with the DTs while his sad little group is sneaking through Laos.
  • Asshole Victim: The "crapulent major," whom the narrator throws under the bus once the General starts to suspect Communist agents have come to America among the refugees. As it turns out, the major was involved with the capture, torture, and gang-rape of a real agent back in Vietnam; the narrator's own complicity in this case forms an important part of the book's climax, suggesting that he sacrificed the major to assuage his own guilt.
  • Banana Republic: The narrator, a Communist spy who thinks very little of the South Vietnamese government, refers to South Vietnam as a "jackfruit republic."
  • Bastard Bastard: The narrator, although sympathetic, is not a good person. He has his moments, though.
  • Blood Brothers: Man, Bon, and the narrator were this since childhood, when they did the whole palm-slicing ritual.
  • The Book Cipher: How the narrator communicates with Man after arriving in America, via messages written in invisible ink.
  • Buxom Beauty Standard: The narrator goes on at length about the general's buxom daughter Lana, describing her body shaped like a figure-8 and her deep cleavage.
  • Dating What Daddy Hates: Lana takes a shine to the narrator when they reunite in America. Before he sets out for Thailand, the General pulls him aside and spells out that he knows they've been involved, and he has to send the narrator off to die because his daughter cannot be allowed to be with a half-French bastard.
  • Deadly Euphemism: How the General communicates that each supposed Communist agent needs to be killed.
  • Dramatic Gun Cock: "I heard the click-clack all around me of weapons being primed for firing, and I did the same."
  • Eagleland: Flavor 2, as while the narrator may have mixed feelings about his countrymen on either side of the war, he definitely hates the hell out of America, Americans, and white people.
  • Framing Device: Approximately 4/5 of the novel is the narrator in a prison cell, delivering his confession to a person he addresses as "Commandant". Chapter 19 finally catches the story up with the "present" and finds the narrator talking to the commandant, his confession being finished.
  • Full-Circle Revolution:
    “....I understood, at last, how our revolution had gone from being the vanguard of political change to the rearguard hoarding power. In this transformation, we were not unusual. Hadn’t the French and the Americans done exactly the same? Once revolutionaries themselves, they had become imperialists, colonizing and occupying our defiant little land, taking away our freedom in the name of saving us. Our revolution took considerably longer than theirs, and was considerably bloodier, but we made up for lost time. When it came to learning the worst habits of our French masters and their American replacements, we quickly proved ourselves the best.”
  • Half-Breed Discrimination: The narrator is the illegitimate offspring of a French priest and a Vietnamese mother. As a consequence no one likes him or trusts him.
  • Holiday in Cambodia: In this case, Vietnam, at the tail-end of the war.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: The narrator rejects this trope utterly.
    "Let me assure you, if there is one part of a prostitute that is made of gold, it is not her heart. That some believe otherwise is a tribute to the conscientious performer."
  • Incest Subtext: The narrator's recollections of his mother are closely intertwined with his growing awareness of sexuality (although his outward relationship with her is innocent), while he openly hates his father and accidentally-on-purpose has Man kill him.
  • It Tastes Like Feet: The narrator complains that the cheap American beer he drinks both looks and tastes like baby's pee.
  • Love Triangle: Between the narrator, Sonny, and Ms. Mori. It adds further complications to the General's ordering of Sonny's death.
  • The Mole: The narrator is an officer in South Vietnamese military intelligence, and a longtime spy for the North.
  • Mrs. Robinson: Mrs. Mori, the 46-year-old Japanese-American woman who seduces the narrator not long after he comes to the USA.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: The narrator meets a film director known only as "The Auteur" who is a very thinly veiled version of Francis Ford Coppola working on an unnamed project that is suspiciously like Apocalypse Now. (Word of God in the acknowledgments makes this explicit, mentioning several references regarding the production of Apocalypse Now.)
  • No Ending: Ends pretty much in medias res, with the narrator and Bon getting ready to board a boat which will smuggle them out of Saigon and back to the West, with maybe a 50% chance of survival.
    • It turns out he does survive, as 2021 sequel novel The Committed has him in Paris, engaging in drugs and crime.
  • No Name Given: Neither the narrator nor the General that he worked for in Saigon. Also true of several other lesser characters in the story, including the "crapulent Major" that the narrator throws suspicion on, the General's wife, called only "Madame", the Commandant addressed in the framing device, the right-wing gung-ho Congressman that aligns himself with the South Vietnamese community, and the film director (see No Celebrities Were Harmed above).
  • Pedophile Priest: The narrator's father, who impregnated his mother when she was thirteen.
  • The Remnant:
    • The General and all the other anti-Communist refugees who imagine that they'll organize a resistance to the Hanoi government.
    • The narrator eventually meets a more legitimate Remnant in the form of the admiral, who has been hiding out in the jungle since the fall of Saigon. He says that he sailed his ship to Thailand instead of following the Americans, and swore a vow to continue the struggle.
  • Royal "We": A variant. After the year of Cold-Blooded Torture leaves the narrator a broken man, he starts thinking of himself as "a man of two minds." Afterwards he refers to himself with the first person plural, as "we".
  • Sleep Deprivation Punishment: The protagonist is held in a torture chamber where one of the punishments is having incredibly bright lights shone on him at all times, alternated with random moments of absolute darkness. This disrupts his sleep and causes him to slowly lose his grip on sanity, all in an attempt to get him to confess.
  • Spy Fiction: Stale Beer indeed, with the narrator living the distinctly unglamorous life of a refugee while sending reports back to Hanoi.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Guess who. Several key scenes set at the camp center around filling in the gaps in his account of the Communist agent whose capture he witnessed, and his relationship with his father. After his mental break under interrogation (or perhaps, merely a breakthrough), practically everything he says and observes is open to question.
  • Verbal Irony: The General scares the bejesus out of the narrator when raising the possibility of Communist "sleeper agents" left behind in the expat community.