The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer

by

Viet Thanh Nguyen

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Man / The Commissar Character Analysis

The narrator first identifies Man as his “handler.” Man is a Communist working for the Viet Cong, or the North Vietnamese. He, along with Bon, is also one of the narrator’s “blood brothers.” He is the son of a dentist and has siblings who pretend not to know that he is a revolutionary. He is also an avid reader and storyteller who, if he lived during a time of peace, might have become a literature teacher at his former lycée. He has translated three of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason mysteries into Vietnamese and wrote “a forgettable Zolaesque novel under a pen name.” Like Bon, he has studied the United States, but he has never visited the country. During their school days, Man was the leader of a three-man study group consisting of him, the narrator, and another former classmate, which is also a sleeper cell of revolutionaries that studies revolutionary classics while they wait to act. Man was also a junior member of another Communist sleeper cell. His radical anti-colonialist ideas were inspired by both a great-uncle, who was a gravedigger who served in Europe during World War I, and the anti-colonialist French nurse whom he married, who is Man’s aunt in Paris. Man directs the narrator to send letters to his aunt, who acts as a go-between for members of the Communist Party in Vietnam and France. Man and the narrator met at lycée when Man protected him from bullies who called him “unnatural.” He’s married to a revolutionary who attended the lycée’s sister school. He’s also the father of a boy and a girl who are around seven and eight when the narrator reunites with Man at the detention camp in North Vietnam. At the camp, the narrator no longer recognizes his old friend, whose face has been badly burned by napalm. At the camp, Man is known as the Commissar.

Man / The Commissar Quotes in The Sympathizer

The The Sympathizer quotes below are all either spoken by Man / The Commissar or refer to Man / The Commissar . For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Grove Press edition of The Sympathizer published in 2016.
Chapter 4 Quotes

But out of deference to our hosts we kept our feelings to ourselves, sitting close to one another on prickly sofas and scratchy carpets, our knees touching under crowded kitchen tables on which sat crenellated ashtrays measuring time’s passage with the accumulation of ashes, chewing on dried squid and the cud of remembrance until our jaws ached, trading stories heard second- and thirdhand about our scattered countrymen. This was the way we learned of the clan turned into slave labor by a farmer in Modesto, and the naive girl who flew to Spokane to marry her GI sweetheart and was sold to a brothel, and the widower with nine children who went out into a Minnesotan winter and lay down in the snow on his back with mouth open until he was buried and frozen and the ex-Ranger who bought a gun and dispatched his wife and two children before killing himself in Cleveland […] and the spoiled girl seduced by heroin who disappeared into the Baltimore streets […]

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Man / The Commissar , The Parisian Aunt
Page Number: 70-71
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 11 Quotes

It mattered not what story these audiences watched. The point was that it was the American story they watched and loved, up until the day that they themselves might be bombed by the planes they had seen in American movies [….] Perhaps the Movie itself was not terribly important, but what it represented, the genus of the American movie, was. An audience member might love or hate this Movie, or dismiss it as only a story, but those emotions were irrelevant. What mattered was that the audience member, having paid for the ticket, was willing to let American ideas and values seep into the vulnerable tissue of his brain and the absorbent soil of his heart.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Man / The Commissar , The Auteur
Page Number: 172-173
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 14 Quotes

That very night, we snuck out of our dormitory and made our way to a tamarind grove, and under its boughs we cut our palms. We mingled our blood once more with boys we recognized as more kin to us than any real kin, and then gave one another our word.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Bon, Man / The Commissar , The Parisian Aunt
Page Number: 233
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 20 Quotes

We're revolutionaries, my friend. Suffering made us. Suffering for the people is what we chose because we sympathized so much with their suffering […] Only without the comfort of sleep will you fully understand the horrors of history. I tell you this as someone who has slept very little since what has happened to me. Believe me when I say that I know how you feel, and that this has to be done.

Page Number: 337
Explanation and Analysis:

Somebody must have something done to him! Was I that somebody? No! That cannot be true, or so I wanted to tell him, but my tongue refused to obey me. I was only mistaken to be that somebody, because I was, I told him, or thought I did, a nobody. I am a lie, a keeper, a book. No! I am a fly, a creeper, a gook.

No! I am—I am—I am—

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Man / The Commissar , The Baby-faced Guard
Related Symbols: The Pickled Baby
Page Number: 338
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 21 Quotes

They were good students, just like me. They learned their lesson well, and so have I, so if you would please just turn off the lights […] if you would remember that the two of us were once and perhaps still are the best of friends, if you could see that I have nothing left to confess […] if I had become an accountant, if I had fallen in love with the right woman […] if my father had gone to save souls in Algeria instead of here […] if we had not fought a war against each other, if some of us had not called ourselves nationalists or communists or capitalists or realists […] if history had never happened, neither as farce nor as tragedy, if the serpent of language had not bitten me, if I had never been born, if my mother was never cleft, if you needed no more revisions, and if I saw no more of these visions, please, could you please just let me sleep?

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Man / The Commissar , The Communist Agent
Page Number: 353-354
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 23 Quotes

He was the commissar but he was also Man; he was my interrogator but also my only confidant; he was the fiend who had tortured me but also my friend. Some might say I was seeing things, but the true optical illusion was in seeing others and oneself as undivided and whole, as if being in focus was more real than being out of focus. We thought our reflection in the mirror was who we truly were, when how we saw ourselves and how others saw us was often not the same. Likewise, we often deceived overselves when we thought we saw ourselves most clearly.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Bon, Man / The Commissar
Page Number: 374
Explanation and Analysis:

I was that man of two minds, me and myself. We had been through so much, me and myself. Everyone we met had wanted to drive us apart from each other, wanted us to choose either one thing or another, except the commissar. He showed us his hand and we showed him ours, the red scars as indelible as they were in our youth. Even after all we had been through, this was the only mark on our body.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Bon, Man / The Commissar
Page Number: 376
Explanation and Analysis:
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Man / The Commissar Character Timeline in The Sympathizer

The timeline below shows where the character Man / The Commissar appears in The Sympathizer. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
...narrator takes pictures of the reports of defeats and war crimes and sends them to Man, his “handler.” The news of troops shooting civilians in the back so that they can... (full context)
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
Along with Man, Bon is one of the narrator’s “blood brothers.” In their school days, they swore undying... (full context)
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
...and clean-cut arsonists who had found their true calling as bombardiers,” or corporals. Bon and Man wait at a beer garden. When the narrator arrives, Bon pours him a glass of... (full context)
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
When the narrator, Bon, and Man leave the beer garden, they stop to smoke a cigarette in an alley, where they... (full context)
Chapter 2 
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
In a letter, the narrator tells Man about the General’s evacuation plan. Man responds by writing that the narrator’s next mission is... (full context)
Chapter 4
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
...and it is from here that the narrator writes the first of his letters to Man’s aunt in Paris. He composes his letters as though he’s writing to Man directly. He... (full context)
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
Asian Identity in the United States Theme Icon
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
The night, the narrator reads a letter from the Parisian aunt. Man tells him that the rebuilding of Vietnam is progressing slowly but surely and that Man’s... (full context)
Chapter 6
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
...the gamblers dispersed. The narrator was surprised to see the tax collector, after having tipped Man off about the raid. The tax collector spent a week in the interrogation center, being... (full context)
Chapter 7
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
...troubles him. Worse, no longer in Saigon, he can’t engage in his weekly meetings with Man at the basilica and discuss his feelings. So, when the narrator receives an invitation to... (full context)
Chapter 11
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
Asian Identity in the United States Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
...the day when they, too, are bombed by the planes they see in the movies. Man understands Hollywood’s propagandistic function. The narrator writes to him, concerned about the relevance of his... (full context)
Chapter 13
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
...soldiers exercising and engaging in maneuvers. The men may have looked foolish but, he warns Man, revolutions begin this way, with men willing to fight, no matter what the odds are,... (full context)
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
...left him feeling emasculated. At least those who are still back in Vietnam (he includes Man, still not knowing his old friend’s true allegiances) have kept their manhood. Furthermore, Bon knows... (full context)
Chapter 15
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
...comment. The General knows how to read a crowd. The narrator has already reported to Man, through the Parisian aunt, about his fund-raising success in getting money from a handful of... (full context)
Chapter 16
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
...know what to do. Meanwhile, he’s received a letter from the Parisian aunt in which Man has written that he is not to return; they need the narrator in America. The... (full context)
Chapter 17
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Chapter 19
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
...has been exposed to and infected by dangerous ideas. As a result, the Commandant and the commissar are quarantining him. He tells the narrator that, when his confession satisfies them, he’ll move... (full context)
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
...to say that they could have simply shot all of the prisoners, particularly Bon. However, the Commissar believes that they can all be rehabilitated. He then says that the Commissar wants to... (full context)
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
...narrator for finishing the written phase of his education. He then invites him to meet the Commissar . They ascend a hill toward the Commissar’s quarters and stop at some stairs leading... (full context)
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
...the narrator recognizes him. He reminds the narrator that he asked him not to return. Man is the Commissar. (full context)
Chapter 20
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
...a mattress. A foamy material is wrapped around his hands and feet. He wonders what Man wants from him and thinks that this must be some sort of final test. Every... (full context)
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
...to come?” The narrator asks how he couldn’t have come back. He then asks if Man is not his friend, his “sworn brother,” and his “true comrade.” He asks why he’s... (full context)
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
Man says that the reason the narrator is in the examination room is to remember what... (full context)
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
The narrator responds, “Nothing.” Man tells him that his answer is not quite right. When the narrator asks again why... (full context)
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
The other reason why Man wanted to be the commissar is because he didn’t want his wife and children to... (full context)
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
Man returns to the subject of the narrator’s confession and asks him what he did to... (full context)
Chapter 21
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
...“What is your name?” None of the simple questions are easy for narrator to answer. The Commissar notes how he can’t even get his name right. He suggests that the doctor inject... (full context)
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
...from a burlap sack. Its purpose is to deliver static electricity to startle the narrator. The Commissar asks for some privacy with “the patient.” Everyone else leaves the room. The narrator sees... (full context)
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
The narrator can no longer feel his body. When the Commissar asks if he can remember what he’s forgotten, the narrator thinks he can. However, he... (full context)
Chapter 22
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
...to save the Communist agent, though she was willing to sacrifice her life to save the Commissar ’s. The narrator admits that he’s a man who’s guilty of the crime of doing... (full context)
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
The narrator says that he wishes he were dead. He figures that Man will finally release him “from this small world with its small minded people,” who treat... (full context)
Loyalty vs. Duplicity Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
Man says that they’re in an impossible situation. The Commandant will only let the narrator leave... (full context)
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
The narrator tries to pull the gun away from Man’s head and put it toward his own, but he doesn’t have the strength. He sees... (full context)
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
...he realizes that the “somebody” who is screaming is him. He’s screaming his answer to Man’s question: “Nothing!” This time, however, the narrator believes his answer. He has embraced nothingness as... (full context)
Chapter 23
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
...he’s preparing for his “watery departure” from his country. After the narrator answered the question, the Commissar reentered the room, turned off the light and sound, unbound him, and embraced him, cradling... (full context)
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
...since the end of the examination. They meet in his quarters for the last time. Man uneasily offers the narrator tea. He announces that both Bon and the narrator are leaving... (full context)
Cultural Duality Theme Icon
Moral Ambivalence and Purpose Theme Icon
...narrator begins to think of himself as “we” instead of “I.” Before the narrator leaves, Man gives the narrator back the rucksack that he took, along with the narrator’s copy of... (full context)