I recently finished reading The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a novel about a double spy agent during and after the Vietnam War. It was one of the more memorable fiction reads I’ve had in a while. I really enjoyed Nguyen’s style of writing and found myself highlighting a number of passages. I’ve been trying to get better in general about revisiting books I’ve read and re-reading my highlights. With The Sympathizer, I found it a very worthwhile exercise and got more out of reading these passages a second time.
This post will best serve a future me who can reminisce about the book some months or years from now. For those who haven’t read the book, I hope some of these passages can be a motivating teaser.
On Race, America, and Speaking English
The narrator, who was born to a Vietnamese mother and a French priest, continues to revisit his mixed-race identity and his “two selves” that seem at odds with each other. He reminisces his experience in college, which he attended in the US, where his ability to speak fluent English seemed to surprise people:
On meeting in person, my interlocutor was invariably astonished at my appearance and would almost always inquire as to how I had learned to speak English so well. In this jackfruit republic that served as a franchise of the United States, Americans expected me to be like those millions who spoke no English, pidgin English, or accented English. I resented their expectation. That was why I was always eager to demonstrate, in both spoken and written word, my mastery of their language. My vocabulary was broader, my grammar more precise than the average educated American.
A character named Ms. Mori works in the same Asian studies department as the narrator. She is a fiery 46-year-old who becomes a love interest and is not shy about sharing her views on race and identity in America. She criticizes the narrator for what looks like his willingness to please white people:
You’ve mastered the inscrutable Oriental smile, sitting there nodding and wrinkling your brow sympathetically and letting people go on, thinking you’re perfectly in agreement with everything they say, all without saying a word yourself. What do you say to that?
She goes on talk critically about the head of their department, an old white professor who fetishes all things Asian:
I can’t help but feel he’s a little disappointed in me because I don’t bow whenever I see him. When he interviewed me, he wanted to know whether I spoke any Japanese. I explained that I was born in Gardena. He said, Oh, you nisei, as if knowing that one word means he knows something about me. You’ve forgotten your culture, Ms. Mori, even though you’re only second generation. Your issei parents, they hung on to their culture. Don’t you want to learn Japanese? Don’t you want to visit Nippon? For a long time I felt bad. I wondered why I didn’t want to learn Japanese, why I didn’t already speak Japanese, why I would rather go to Paris or Istanbul or Barcelona rather than Tokyo. But then I thought, Who cares? Did anyone ask John F. Kennedy if he spoke Gaelic and visited Dublin or if he ate potatoes every night or if he collected paintings of leprechauns? So why are we supposed to not forget our culture? Isn’t my culture right here since I was born here? Of course I didn’t ask him those questions. I just smiled and said, You’re so right, sir. She sighed. It’s a job. But I’ll tell you something else. Ever since I got it straight in my head that I haven’t forgotten a damn thing, that I damn well know my culture, which is American, and my language, which is English, I’ve felt like a spy in that man’s office. On the surface, I’m just plain old Ms. Mori, poor little thing who’s lost her roots, but underneath, I’m Sofia and you better not fuck with me.
Later, at a wedding, Ms. Mori is irked that the Congressman, an honored guest at the event, gets heavy applause after his speech that ends with a chant in Vietnamese:
Typical white man behavior, Ms. Mori said. Have you ever noticed how a white man can learn a few words of some Asian language and we just eat it up? He could ask for a glass of water and we’d treat him like Einstein. Sonny smiled and wrote that down, too. You’ve been here longer than we have, Ms. Mori, he said with some admiration. Have you noticed that when we Asians speak English, it better be nearly perfect or someone’s going to make fun of our accent? It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been here, Ms. Mori said. White people will always think we’re foreigners.
The narrator is invited to the home of a Francis Ford Coppola-like director after providing detailed notes on a movie script that is to be about the Vietnam War. He is greeted by the assistant Violet, a white woman who seems to regard him with disdain.
What she saw when she looked at me must have been my yellowness, my slightly smaller eyes, and the shadow cast by the ill fame of the Oriental’s genitals, those supposedly minuscule privates disparaged on many a public restroom wall by semiliterates. I might have been just half an Asian, but in America it was all or nothing when it came to race. You were either white or you weren’t. Funnily enough, I had never felt inferior because of my race during my foreign student days. I was foreign by definition and therefore was treated as a guest. But now, even though I was a card-carrying American with a driver’s license, Social Security card, and resident alien permit, Violet still considered me as foreign, and this misrecognition punctured the smooth skin of my self-confidence. Was I just being paranoid, that all-American characteristic? Maybe Violet was stricken with colorblindness, the willful inability to distinguish between white and any other color, the only infirmity Americans wished for themselves. But as she advanced along the polished bamboo floors, steering clear of the dusky maid vacuuming a Turkish rug, I just knew it could not be so. The flawlessness of my English did not matter. Even if she could hear me, she still saw right through me, or perhaps saw someone else instead of me, her retinas burned with the images of all the castrati dreamed up by Hollywood to steal the place of real Asian men. Here I speak of those cartoons named Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan, Number One Son, Hop Sing—Hop Sing!—and the bucktoothed, bespectacled Jap not so much played as mocked by Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The performance was so insulting it even deflated my fetish for Audrey Hepburn, understanding as I did her implicit endorsement of such loathsomeness.
The narrator recalls a moment during the war when he was tasked with torturing a Viet Cong prisoner. One of the techniques was to blare music that would keep the prisoner awake. He opts for country music and shares his thoughts on why it was an apt choice for the moment:
Country music was the most segregated kind of music in America, where even whites played jazz and even blacks sang in the opera. Something like country music was what lynch mobs must have enjoyed while stringing up their black victims. Country music was not necessarily lynching music, but no other music could be imagined as lynching’s accompaniment. Beethoven’s Ninth was the opus for Nazis, concentration camp commanders, and possibly President Truman as he contemplated atomizing Hiroshima, classical music the refined score for the high-minded extermination of brutish hordes. Country music was set to the more humble beat of the red-blooded, bloodthirsty American heartland. It was for fear of being beaten to this beat that black soldiers avoided the Saigon bars where their white comrades kept the jukeboxes humming with Hank Williams and his kind, sonic signposts that said, in essence, No Niggers.
On Women and Sex
The narrator has a complex history with women. He often reflects and laments the early death of his mother, who succumbed to illness in her thirties. She had him when she was a young teenager, exploited by an older priest who would become the narrator’s father. There is a long passage in which he describes his rampant puberty-stricken desire to masturbate, which leads him to defile a squid, a highly prized ingredient for a poor family, only to see it later used by his mother in her dish. There are heavy doses of Oedipal conflict throughout the book that now seem more apparent to me in revisiting these passages. For this section, I picked a few quotes that demonstrate the narrator’s view of the opposite sex.
Waiting at an army base during the Fall of Saigon, the narrator observes the prostitutes who have managed to be included in the air lift out of Vietnam. He then makes a more general observation about prostitutes:
I had an abiding respect for the professionalism of career prostitutes, who wore their dishonesty more openly than lawyers, both of whom bill by the hour. But to speak only of the financial side misses the point. The proper way to approach a prostitute is to adapt the attitude of a theatergoer, sitting back and suspending disbelief for the duration of the show. The improper way is to doltishly insist that the play is just a bunch of people putting on charades because you have paid the price of the ticket, or, conversely, to believe utterly in what you are watching and hence succumb to a mirage. For example, grown men who sneer at the idea of unicorns will tearfully testify to the existence of an even rarer, more mythical species. Found only in remote ports of call and the darkest, deepest reaches of the most insalubrious taverns, this is the prostitute in whose chest beats the proverbial heart of gold. Let me assure you, if there is one part of a prostitute that is made of gold, it is not her heart. That some believe otherwise is a tribute to the conscientious performer.
The narrator, at a wedding, boldly decides to flirt with the daughter of the General, his longtime boss who still commands him in America. He subscribes to, with success, his approach in impressing a young woman.
Sitting down next to Lana and thinking of nothing, I merely followed my instincts and my first three principles in talking to a woman: do not ask permission; do not say hello; and do not let her speak first.
And then he struggles to keep his eyes away from her chest:
All this time I kept my gaze fixed on hers, an enormously difficult task given the gravitational pull exerted by her cleavage. While I was critical of many things when it came to so-called Western civilization, cleavage was not one of them. The Chinese might have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in simple lasciviousness, he was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb “to cleave,” which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman’s cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity. The double meaning was also present in how cleavage separated a woman from a man and yet drew him to her with the irresistible force of sliding down a slippery slope.
I found this passage to be another example of the “two selves” theme that comes up again and again throughout the novel. The narrator exhibits his carnal desire through his gaze of Lana, his more basic, animal self, all while showing his erudite, civilized self in deconstructing the word and meaning of “cleavage.”
I also highlighted some sentences here and there because I loved how they sounded and admired their construction.
It is always better to admire the best among our foes rather than the worst among our friends.
So it was that we soaped ourselves in sadness and we rinsed ourselves with hope, and for all that we believed almost every rumor we heard, almost all of us refused to believe that our nation was dead.
The emotional residue of that night was like a drop of arsenic falling into the still waters of my soul, nothing having changed from the taste of it but everything now tainted.
But while science fiction imagined time travelers as moving forward or backward in time, this timepiece demonstrated a different chronology. The open secret of the clock, naked for all to see, was that we were only going in circles.
They’re beautiful, which may or may not have been a lie. They were not beautiful to me, but they were beautiful to her.
What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around us apparently do, in nothing? We can only answer these questions for ourselves.