Throughout The Sympathizer, the narrator categorizes himself based on the groups he defines himself to be a part of. On 186, Nguyen writes “My eyes welled up with tears as they raised their glasses to me, a fellow Vietnamese who was, despite everything, like them.” The concept of being ‘like them despite everything’ seems a paradox – if the narrator defines himself as an individual based on his differences from the stereotype of the rest of the community, how can he remain part of that community? Being ‘like them’ therefore has to be defined from an outside perspective, and implies an external sorting force that is independent of the narrator. In this way we see that the act of sorting himself can tie in to the narrator looking back and retelling his own life – the external force necessitated by the act of sorting tells us something about the narrator at the end of the tale, and the changes between the narrator in the story and the future narrator telling it.
What I find most interesting about the protagonist of the novel is the cohesiveness of his personality despite the extreme duality of his identity. He constantly brings up how he juggles to separate worlds, as a spy, a half-Vietnamese and half-French, and as an advisor that deals with two classes of people. These are seen in his reflections of himself, as he identifies himself as separate and individual from everyone, and in his reactions to every day events that differ from other characters. The latter phenomenon can be seen when he and the General are attacked by women in the camp at Los Angeles. While the General is horrified at this new experience, the protagonist, being the figure that has managed all the hands-on work of dealing with locals, remains relatively calm. The effect is a disturbing contradiction between his confidence in his social and political role, and the ever-changing inner dialogue that reflects on his extreme situations.
I was struck by the similarity of the Sympathizer’s experience of almost dying from an explosion with the experience of the Invisible Man at the paint factory. Both suffer damage to their heads and are overtaken by blindness. Both wake-up in a strange hospital, and both loose some part of their minds/memories. In the interview with Nguyen at the back of The Sympathizer, Nguyen says that he was heavily influenced by Ellison’s Invisible Man, but that there were certain points in which he disagreed with him. So, I’m primarily interested in the differences between the Sympathizer’s experience and that of the Invisible Man in the explosion/hospital scenarios. The Sympathizer has a feeling that some procedure has been done on him, yet he has no memory of it. In comparison, we see the operation on the Invisible Man, but we see it through his limited (and therefore confused) point of view. Both receive compensation, but the Sympathizer feels himself to be in such a position to haggle for more, while the Invisible Man does not.
What is the difference in power and position between the Sympathizer and the Invisible Man in these equivalent experiences? What constitutes the Sympathizer’s power as Vietnamese man working on an American movie set in a Filipino hospital? How does he both have and not have power as a “semi-westerner” to the Filipinos yet also a foreigner to the Americans? How does this compare to the Invisible Man’s lack of power as a southern African-American man at a factory hospital staffed by all-White doctors in New York?
For this entire quarter, I’ve been conceptualizing interiority as merely a character’s internal thoughts and feelings. A character’s ability to talk about themselves was an acknowledgment of their interiority and their interiority in action.
However, when the narrator and the General are in the car headed to the golf course (239-240), the narrator seems to be talking to himself so the general asks him if he heard anything and the narrator responds saying he must have been talking to himself. The narrator, then, goes into this musing on “the problem with talking to oneself.” (240) His use of oneself rather than myself indicates a distancing of himself from the very act which he was doing. It was almost as though he was referring back to himself as more of a concept than an actual person.
Obviously, this is nothing new. It seems to be the narrative style of the novel. However, this passage stuck out to me because it highlighted the degrees of referentiality that is happening in the novel where the narrator seems to be an observer of his own self. In his negotiating of his various identities that are in active opposition with each other, the narrative style of observing an interiority-being able to observe and call attention to one’s own interiority rather than interiority being the telos of an individual’s recognition of their thoughts and emotions- creates a more dynamic-almost slippery- character to comprehend because the stability seems to come from being able to stabilize the opposing identities but the narrator rarely seems to be able to reconcile them which makes the character known to the audience more from how he observes and describes himself rather than from how he first-hand experiences his emotions, thoughts, and actions. In this novel, we’re not really getting insight into a character’s interiority, but more how the character parses through his interiority. We’re getting a character’s self-referentiality. Not really his interiority.
After changing to uniforms, the veterans almost immediately looked different — “with their raggedy haircuts hidden by field caps and berets, they were impossible to mess” (p.219) — or became (from a mass, a background) individuals, and the narrator explained this was because by wearing uniforms they restored their manhood. It is curious that a simple change of outfit made such a difference, and the change of outfit not only hid their poor status, but also gave, or rather let them regain their status as soldiers, as valuable people who could stand out from the ordinary. Being viewed as refugees and inferiors, they were not able to get jobs that could sustain their former socioeconomic status, and consequently fit only more into the refugee stereotype, and so poverty and doubts from the Americans, their families, and probably mostly themselves weighed them down. Now in this instance of the book, although the Americans who were the first to look down on them were not present, yet they gained their lost confidence as if the Americans were looking at them, astonished by their change. Maybe the switch of the costume was a switch of identity, so that as Vietnamese soldiers they no longer depended on the Americans’ view of them, and their inferiority compared to other Americans just ceased to exist because there was no comparison, or they would not need to do the comparison of them against American citizens.
Identity and Race in The Sympathizer
“Was five thousand dollars the worth of my miserable life? Admittedly it was a considerable amount, more than I had ever seen at any one time. That was what they were counting on, but even in my dazed state, I knew better than to settle for the first offer. (…)
But as you may know, or maybe you do not (…) an Asian—here I paused and allowed a faraway look to come into my eyes, the better to give them time to imagine the vast genealogical banyan tree extending above me, overshadowing me with the oppressive weight of generations come to root on the top of my head—an Asian cannot think just about himself.
So I’ve heard, said the representative. The family is everything. Like us Italians.” (201)
The passage above is a satirical twist of universal (but not unhealthy) greed and askew racial prejudice. Unlike just pointing out that some prejudice might not be so accurate, Viet Thanh Nguyen allocates the protagonist to take advantage of the prejudice to fulfill a universal desire for money. Here, the protagonist’s identity is characterized as an unfortunate yet agile figure that takes advantage even of an accident that could have led to his possible death. The farcical irony in this passage is that although the corporate agent identifies the protagonist with an Asian stereotype, in fact they share not only the same desire for more money either earned or saved, but also their familiarity to their extended family members. Here, racial stereotype is employed in the identification, while the readers notice that the two are mostly same in human traits.
The Frow readings have briefly alluded to the religious practice of confession and its strategic secularization into a device for modern literature. Traditionally, the ritual of confession serves for the confessor to acknowledge his or her wrongs in aims to be absolved of sin/ignominy (forgiveness), reform himself or herself through penance, and ultimately be reborn of conscience. In The Sympathizer, Viet Than Nguyen structures the narrative as the protagonist’s confession to his unidentified “Commandant.” In keeping with the Augustinian model of confession, the narrative includes both admittance of wrongdoing as well as proclamations of faith. This is demonstrated in the passage that opens Chapter 7: he admits his guilt over the assassination – “I confess that the major’s death troubled me greatly, Commandant…He was a relatively innocent man” – and then affirms his commitment to the revolutionary project, which serves as a stand-in for God in this book – “We’re revolutionaries, and revolutionaries can never be innocent” (111). This novel’s confessional structure, however, deviates strongly from the religious model because its narrator’s confession is not a voluntary enterprise; it is the result of an exercise of political force. Thus, contained within any ideological proclamations in the text, there is another layer of deception added to the already Janus-faced narrative. It makes me wonder, if in writing this confession the narrator becomes a reformed subject in the eyes of the state, how has his perspective and thus the story we receive been altered? Or how, if it all, does the narrator subvert the limitations of his prescribed confession?
After reading Zunshine’s essay “Cognitive alternatives to interiority”, I was quite interested in how this historical contextualization of “mind-reading” relates to the identity of immigrants in Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. In describing a particular dinner scene with the Congressman and an English professor, the narrator describes most immigrants as “the greatest anthropologists ever of the American people” as they “know white people better then they knew themselves” (258). In Zunshine’s essay, this literary phenomenon is known as “third-level cognitive embedment” (153) and involves a fictional character’s ability to represent their own interiority as well as another character’s perception of their interiority. For the unnamed protagonist in The Sympathizer, this ability manifests itself as a survival technique for immigrants who are forced to decipher and present that which is most desirable for the white American, whether it be laughing at their jokes or refraining from talking in a foreign language while in their presence.
This particular moment of the text is a clear reflection of Zunshine’s belief that a character’s decision of whose mind should be reflected is an “ideological, culture-specific choice” (160). With that being said, I’m not entirely sure what to make of the reader’s involvement the process. Now confronted with a character whose representation of himself and other fictional characters is somewhat distorted or altered, it makes the reader’s job even more difficult in grasping (and trusting) the interiority of a particular character. It’s possible that this is another literary device used to reflect the post-Vietnam war era and shifting American identity, but the narrator’s inclusion that family members read their “anthropology notes” with “hilarity, confusion, and awe” (258) seems to suggest something else. Much like 18th-century fictional characters who used third-level cognitive embedment to elevate their social status, it seems like the protagonist views this ability as a source of power and subversion within the typical parameters of a Vietnamese immigrant living in the United States.
I thought it was interesting, and the narrator pointed this out, that while the nameless extras could be played by Vietnamese people, as they all scream “AIEYAAHHH!!!” (157) but for the Vietnamese characters within the movie The Hamlet that “we could not represent ourselves; we must be represented, in this case by other Asians” (158). I thought this was an interesting parallel to the narrator, as he is a spy and therefore cannot represent his actual feelings, even in the course of the movie, and that people perceive him by the representations of others. It’s said that the Asian actors cast do not even look like who they are supposed to be portraying, and the excuse for acting is just that: an excuse. They would not hire the Vietnamese amateur actors and claimed the professional ones overacted, but the actors like Danny Boy were both amateurs and later commented as having overacted, so they could have easily chosen the Vietnamese actors instead but didn’t. The narrator signed up for the film because he wanted to add his voice but they wouldn’t let him, and denying these actors opportunities is another way in making sure their perspective is not heard.
I found the construction of dialogue in The Sympathizer very interesting because it doesn’t follow the traditional conventions of dialogue. Dialogue does not stand out from the rest of the text, as it usually does in novels. It is not blocked off by line breaks or by quotations; it blends in with the rest of the text and with the dialogue of other characters. It’s interesting and sometimes confusing because you’re not quite sure when someone is done speaking and when the narrator picks up again. This forces you to figure out who is speaking based on what is said. For example, on page 8 there is a conversation between Claude, the General, and the narrator in which the General is interrupted by Claude: “So– the General began, only to have Claude interrupt him. You have one plane and you should consider yourself lucky, sir.” Sometimes when I’m reading, I pay more attention to the text in the quotes than phrases of “he/she said to him/her.” This novel makes you pay attention to both equally.
I think this blending of the dialogue with the rest of the text goes along with the characterization of the narrator. Who he is to most of the characters is just his attempt to blend in, to not suspicion. He Americanizes himself by not only shedding his Vietnamese accent but also by being able to talk about the things that Americans talks about: “Some of my countrymen spoke English as well as I, although most had a tinge of an accent. But almost none could discuss, like I, baseball standings, the awfulness of Jane Fonda, or the merits of the Rolling Stones versus the Beatles. If an American closed his eyes to hear me speak, he would think I was one of his kind” (7). Similarly, if while you’re reading this novel you don’t pay enough attention, you might think that the dialogue is the narrator speaking and get lost.