Hypothetical Construction of History, Memory, and Self

One of the most engrossing sections for our last reading of The Sympathizer was towards the end of Chapter 21 after the narrator finally confesses the details of the gang rape of the communist agent. After remarking, “Yes, memory was sticky” (352) after the policemen empty a bottle of coke into the agent, the narrator slips into a chain of hypotheticals that at first concern him, but soon spirals into ceaseless circles of backtracking through national, political, and religious memory spanning ages in history. In a series of rhetorical questions that arise only to dissipate without any further development or answer, the narrator rambles, “…so if you would please just turn off the lights…if history’s ship had taken a different track…if I had fallen in love with the right woman…if we forgot our resentment, if we forgot revenge, if we acknowledged that we are all puppets in someone else’s play…if you  needed no more revisions, and if I saw no more of these visions, please, could you please just let me sleep?” (353-354). Along the way, the narrator questions everything ranging from the Soviets, labels like “nationalists or communists or capitalists or realists” (353), Buddha, Jesus, the Bible, the Chinese using gunpowder for fireworks and not firearms, Adam and Eve, Mao, the Japanese, his own mother and father, and the concept of history itself. The way that the narrator filters through this immensely disorganized yet somehow coherent list of hypotheticals, and his attempt to thereby construct some meaning out of the series of events, random or planned, fictional or real, that have led him, his nation, and the world to this moment in time, resonate closely with his continuing attempts to construct himself. A gook? A half-gook? French or Vietnamese, Occidental or Oriental? A bastard? A spy, a Communist, a military aide, a movie advisor, an academic assistant, a prisoner, a killer, a traitor, a patriot? What forces led him here, and who has the power to write and revise his history, especially if the narrator’s own memory is simultaneously unreliable and malleable? Which of his many masks would he be donning if a single factor in his past was nudged away, the falling dominoes of construction irrevocably altered? The passage also is reminiscent of the attempted reconstruction of Alison’s father in Fun Home, the entire memoir an attempt to resuscitate him as a character by ruminating upon hypothetical explanations to memories of his words and actions. How much of character construction, and construction of the human narrative, is hypothetical? And does it matter?

1 Comment

  1. This observation reminded me of a similar thought I had while reading, which was: what would happen if the protagonist simply did not take into account his racial and personal backgrounds, and focused purely on his profession- and vice versa? In other words, what I found compelling about him as a character was his inability to separate and compartmentalize the different aspects of his identity, because it is too reminiscent of the real-world process. For me, his story is not so much about the battle of control over his life between him and fate- or any other external force acting against him- but about how he comes to terms with the fragmented positions and the multiple dualities he was thrust into, perhaps unfairly. I think it would be interesting to explore the idea that characters should be forgiven to an extent for the lack of control or agency they have, using the idea that we can project real characters onto them as the basis.

Leave a Reply