The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer

by

Viet Thanh Nguyen

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The Sympathizer: Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The next morning, Bon soothes the narrator with a bottle of scotch. Drinking turns out to be the best cure. The narrator thought that he would feel better after a night with Lana. He went back to her after leaving Sonny’s apartment, but even “an unforgettable evening with her” didn’t help him forget. The next day, he and Bon are set to leave for Thailand. In a message to his Parisian aunt for Man, he acknowledges that he’s disobeying Man’s order to remain in the U.S., but he’s returning to save Bon’s life. On the plane out of the country, the narrator feels that he’s sharing space with the crapulent major’s ghost on one side of him and Sonny’s on the other. He thinks about all of the things he’ll miss about America. Bon, on the other hand, is relieved to go.
Both Bon and the narrator have been using alcohol as a palliative for their consciences, with the assistance of the General. Initially, the narrator thought that sex would help him, but it’s likely that intimacy with Lana merely reminded him of the loss that Sofia will now suffer. The narrator’s feeling of sitting beside ghosts on the plane is the result of his guilt. He is leaving America behind, but not the sins that he committed there. The presences of Sonny and the major parallel with Man and Bon, who have also guided the narrator’s conscience.
Themes
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
Bon tells the narrator that they’re going back to the land where everyone looks like them. The narrator points out that he doesn’t look like anyone in Vietnam. Bon grows irritated with him and says that his problem is that he lets everyone know what he’s thinking. The narrator agrees to keep quiet. After a sleepless twenty-four hour trip, including a plane change in Tokyo, they arrive in Bangkok. Bon and the narrator have brought little with them. They gave the keys to their apartment to Reverend Ramon and told him to sell everything. Claude and the admiral in charge of the base camp will handle their needs. It’s Claude, too, who greets them at the airport.
Bon is irritated with the narrator for not sharing in his happiness about returning to the only place that Bon considers home. He doesn’t like being reminded of the narrator’s racial identity, which complicates his relationship with Vietnam. Bon’s relationship to Vietnam is uncomplicated, and his life didn’t fall apart until he made the decision to leave his country.
Themes
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
Claude ushers the narrator and Bon into a van. He tells them that he’ll keep them awake to help them get over their jet lag. Claude, the narrator, and Bon arrive at an establishment with a huge, bright, yellow vertical sign that says “Golden Cock.” Bon abstains and the narrator decides to stay with him while Claude goes inside. When the narrator asks where Bon wants to go, he points over the narrator’s shoulder to a movie poster advertising The Hamlet.
Claude takes Bon and the narrator to a brothel. Bon remains disinterested in sex because he is still in mourning for his wife. Bon is someone who cannot perform actions that lack meaning or that seem unethical to him. To distract himself, less from sex than from his sadness and loneliness, he suggests seeing a movie.
Themes
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
They go to see the movie and the narrator notices that the audience is enjoying themselves. The narrator watches the only scene that he hasn’t seen filmed—Mai’s rape scene. The audience remains silent while the character screams “Mama!” repeatedly. As the credits begin rolling, the narrator feels shame for having been associated with the movie but pride in the extras’ great work. He waits for his name to appear in the credits, but he never sees it. His “grudging acknowledgement” of the Auteur is replaced by “boiling murderous rage.”
Unable to kill the narrator, the Auteur pretends that he was never a part of the movie at all. The audience’s enjoyment is a bit sadistic, given that they are watching a violent war film in which American characters are murdering people who look like themselves. This is reminiscent of the narrator’s rightful assumption that the world is eager to absorb American ideas, including the fantasy of the white American hero.
Themes
Asian Identity in the United States Theme Icon
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The narrator asks Bon what he thinks of the movie. Bon says that it was the narrator’s job to ensure that Vietnamese people came off well, but they didn’t even come off as human. As they get into a taxi, the narrator insists that, if it weren’t for him, no Asians would’ve had any roles at all; they would’ve been “target practice.” Bon says that the narrator tried to play the white people’s game and lost because they run the game. He insists that when you’ve got nothing, you can only change things from the outside. They don’t speak anymore for the duration of their ride. When they get to the hotel, they fall asleep almost right away.
The narrator views the movie as a compromise. The Asian characters are not fully realized, and they exist only to be rescued by white people, but the Auteur’s original script had no Asian characters at all. Bon, however, sees the narrator as a fool who never had a chance working within the Hollywood system. Their inability to agree results in tense silence.
Themes
Asian Identity in the United States Theme Icon
Before falling asleep, the narrator thinks back to his and Bon’s departure from Los Angeles. The General and Madame saw everyone off at the airport. The General presented his four volunteers, including Bon and the narrator, with bottles of whisky, and he took photos with them. He pulled the narrator aside to have a word with him. The General talked about how he and Madame regarded the narrator as an adopted son, but there were rumors that the narrator tried to seduce Lana, and the General was disgusted. The narrator lived in their house and treated Lana as a younger sister. The General admitted that the narrator’s relationship with Lana was part of the reason why he was letting him go to Vietnam. He concluded by saying that he’d never approve of his daughter being with a “bastard.” The General “stuffed” the narrator’s mouth with the one word that could silence him.
The General’s disapproval of the narrator’s relationship with Lana was to be expected because he isn’t the husband that he envisioned for his daughter, for the reasons that Lana expressed to him already at the Roosevelt Hotel. What offends the narrator is that the General regards him with the same loathing as everyone else in their country, despite the immense sacrifices that the narrator has made on the General’s behalf. The General demonstrates great disloyalty, while also reminding the narrator of his snobbery in bringing up the narrator’s racial heritage. This incident also results in the narrator’s expulsion from the General’s circle.
Themes
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
The next morning, back in Thailand, Bon and the narrator awake before sunrise. Claude drives them to the camp near the Laotian border. There, the narrator sees the last men standing for the armed forces of the Republic of Vietnam. They bear little resemblance to the clean-shaven, disciplined men in the General’s posters. They look like peasants fighting in the bush. Their eyes are as “dull as coal.” They look more like Viet Cong. One of the guerillas leads them to a hut to meet the admiral, who looks no different from his soldiers. Like Ho Chi Minh, he calls himself “uncle.”
There is a kind of reversal here in which the former South Vietnamese Army, once clean-cut, now bears closer resemblance to their former enemies. The dullness in their eyes signifies their hopelessness and lack of belief in the war that they seek to resume fighting. Worse, the veterans seem to have no clear plan or ideology of their own, resulting in their mimicking their former enemies.
Themes
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
The admiral talks about how, after the Americans had abandoned the South Vietnamese, he appealed to his Thai friends. The Thai would fight Communism because it was pressing up against their border with Cambodia. He realized that he didn’t need to be saved by Americans. He and his men could fight for decades, if necessary. In God’s eyes, he concludes, this is “no time at all.” Bon asks if he really thinks that they can get their country back. The admiral says that they have their faith, and God is on their side. If they die on the mission, those they save will be grateful to them. Bon confesses that he has no faith in anything; he just wants to kill Communists. The admiral says that this desire will suffice.
The admiral is relying on local alliances to help fight the next war. Relying on the Catholic faith taught to him by the French, he takes a view similar to the narrator’s mother: the meek shall inherit the Earth. The fight for liberty is timeless, in the admiral’s view. It is a fight both to rectify the past and to take back the future of Vietnam. Bon clearly doesn’t have the same lofty view, however. For him, it is simply a matter of fulfilling a task, which is to kill the enemy he has loathed for his entire life.
Themes
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon