The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer

by

Viet Thanh Nguyen

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The Sympathizer: Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The General hires Bon as a clerk in his liquor store, though Bon continues to work part-time for Reverend Ramon. Meanwhile, the narrator has his first date with Sofia at a tiki bar in Silver Lake. She smokes and drinks “like a movie starlet from a screwball comedy.” She says that she disliked the narrator during their first meeting, believing that he was a sellout. She complains about the Department Chair, who accuses her of having forgotten her Japanese heritage. She resents being told such things when Irish Americans, for example, are never asked if they speak Gaelic. She insists that her culture exists where she was born—in the United States. The narrator confesses that he thinks he’s falling in love with her. She insists that, if they get involved, their relationship will be casual.
Sofia, like the narrator, doesn’t feel that she fits in to American life, though she is American. Because she’s of Asian heritage, she’s perpetually regarded as a foreigner. She, unlike her white counterparts, is not given the privilege of self-invention, and instead is defined completely by her origins. Unlike the narrator, she’s willing to challenge the racism around her instead of complying with it in exchange for small benefits. Sofia is a foil for the narrator because she isn’t obedient and strives toward individualism and authenticity.
Themes
Asian Identity in the United States Theme Icon
Under Sofia’s tutelage, the narrator learns that “true revolution also [involves] sexual liberation.” The only thing that could make the narrator happier is if Bon were to get a companion. Shy and discreet about sex due to his Catholic upbringing, he abstains from everything but masturbation. On the other hand, the narrator has made peace with the idea of going to hell. The narrator committed his first “unnatural act” at thirteen when he masturbated into a squid that his mother was preparing for dinner. After ejaculating into it, he feels guilty. They had only six squid; his mother would notice the missing one. He rinses away the evidence, then cuts shallow scars into it. His mother returns to their hut. She stuffs the squid with ground pork, bean thread noodle, diced mushroom, and chopped ginger, then fries them and serves them with ginger-lime dipping sauce. Obediently, he eats and tastes his own salty flavor.
The scene with the squid provides some comic relief, but it also upends stereotypes about Asian male sexuality. Bon isn’t shy and discreet about sex because he’s Vietnamese, but because he was raised Catholic. It is Western influence that gives him pause about sex. The narrator expressed natural curiosity about sex as an adolescent boy and engaged in experimentation with an object similar to what he thought a vagina would feel like. He doesn’t feel guilt for his sexuality but for the fact that his personal indulgence could cost his hard-working mother a meal. He eats the squid as a form of penance.
Themes
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
By the time he comes out of this daydream, the narrator arrives at the General’s liquor store on the unfashionable eastern end of Hollywood Boulevard. Bon tells him that Claude is in the storeroom in the back with the General. When the narrator enters, Claude rises from his vinyl chair and they embrace. Other than having gained a few pounds, he looks no different to the narrator.
Claude is the narrator’s mentor and, like Bon and Man, someone whom he has known since childhood who remains a constant presence in his life. Claude serves a role similar to that of an adoptive father, due to having discovered the narrator when he was a nine-year-old refugee.
Themes
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Claude talks about his escape from Vietnam on the ambassador’s helicopter. He talks about leaving behind his girlfriend, Kim, who never met him at his villa at dawn after promising to show up there with her family. To make his own escape, Claude fought his way through crowds at the embassy, demanding to be let through because he’s an American. He got to the wall in front of the embassy, where Marines reached down, grabbed his hand, and pulled him up. He recalls never having felt so ashamed or prouder to be an American. The General pours both Claude and the narrator another double scotch. The narrator makes a toast, congratulating Claude for knowing what it feels like “to be one of us.”
For Claude, despite his extensive work in Vietnam, he doesn’t feel the General’s guilt about leaving the country behind. His status as a CIA agent and an American distance him from the sense of desperation that the hopeful evacuees were feeling. When the General congratulates Claude for knowing what it feels like “to be one of us,” he’s alluding to Claude’s first experience of being trapped in circumstances beyond his control.
Themes
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
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The General tells Claude that they have a problem—a spy in their ranks. The General and Claude look at the narrator, as if for confirmation. He names the crapulent major. Claude says that he doesn’t know him. The General remarks that he’s not a man to be known, an unremarkable officer. He says that it was the narrator’s choice to bring the major with them. Claude asks why the General suspects him. The General says that one reason is that the major is Chinese, and the other is that the General’s contacts in Saigon say that the major’s family is doing very well. The final reason is that he’s fat, and the General dislikes fat men.
The General believes the narrator’s accusation, not because he thinks that the major is capable of acting as a double agent but because his dislike for the major makes him want to believe that he doesn’t belong within the General’s ranks. Despite the major’s loyalty to the General’s army, the General is eager to expel the officer for his perceived failure to fit the General’s image of a South Vietnamese soldier.
Themes
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Claude insists that the crapulent major isn’t a spy just because he’s Chinese. The General insists that he’s not a racist but finds it very suspect that the major’s family is doing so well in Saigon when the Communists know all of the South Vietnamese Army’s officers and their families. Claude notes that this is just circumstantial evidence. To the narrator’s chagrin, he’s now thrown blame onto an innocent man. However, if the General has contacts in Saigon, that means that some kind of resistance exists. The General seems to feel like himself again—“a perennial plotter.” He insists that he’s just biding his time and that the war isn’t over.
The General denies his prejudice, though he uses the major’s ethnicity as a basis for his mistrust. China is a Communist nation, which makes the General think that the major would more likely be aligned with them. It’s also possible that he’s jealous of the possibility that the major is able to provide for his family in South Vietnam, while the General is unable to do the same. Though these are just rumors, they are enough to trigger the General’s guilt.
Themes
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
To assert his loyalty to the General, the narrator, along with Bon, will kill the crapulent major. When the narrator leaves the storeroom, he sees that the store is empty, except for Bon, who watches a baseball game on a tiny TV by the cash register. The narrator has cashed his tax refund from the IRS—not a large sum but symbolically significant. He uses it to buy enough booze to keep him and Bon steeped in amnesia until the following week. As Bon bags the bottles, the narrator talks about the possibility of the crapulent major being a spy, which Bon finds implausible.
The narrator agrees to kill the crapulent major to prove his loyalty to the General, while also managing to eliminate one of his political enemies. The narrator is able to satisfy both of his allegiances with one act. However, his need to drink to forget about what he’s doing reveals his sense of guilt. Like the General, Bon doesn’t believe in the major’s guilt, but he accepts it because they need a scapegoat.
Themes
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
Still, Bon shows the narrator a sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun on a rack beneath the cash register. When the narrator asks how Bon got it, he says that it’s easier to get a gun in America than it is to vote or drive. Ironically, the crapulent major secured the connection with the Chinese gangs in Chinatown who got Bon access to firearms. The narrator notes that it would be too messy with a shotgun. Bon assures him that they won’t be using the shotgun. He opens a cigar box resting on a shelf beneath the counter. Inside, there’s a .38 Special, a revolver with a snub nose, identical to the one that the narrator carried as a service pistol. The narrator feels trapped by circumstances once again. His only consolation is the expression on Bon’s face. He looks happy for the first time in a year.
The narrator and Bon learn that, in some ways, their new country is as accepting of violence as their old country was. The major has helped Bon to acquire the gun that will be used to kill him, using the Chinese connections that the General regards as partial proof of the major’s disloyalty. In the Vietnamese community, which has become even more tightly-knit in the U.S., the major is now regarded as an outsider. Bon is happy to kill him because doing so causes him to feel more connected to the country that he’s left behind, and gives him a sense of purpose that he hasn’t felt since his family died.
Themes
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon