“The Sympathizer” Hits HBO At A Time of Greater Urgency Than Ever Before.

Steve Villano
6 min readApr 20, 2024


The Pulitzer Prize winner author Viet Thanh Nguyen in his masterpiece The Sympathizer, has a remarkable passage toward the end of his book which takes away my breath by it’s sheer force and power.

The long paragraph runs across pages 353 and 354 of the paperback version of the book, over 40 lines, is punctuated by semi-colons, and populated heavily by a set of “ifs.” The super sentence suggests how different the world, and his character’s life, would have been, “If” only certain events had or had not happened:

“…if history’s ship had taken a different tack, if I had become an accountant…if we forgot our resentment, if we forget revenge; if we acknowledged that we are all puppets in someone else’s play, 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…”

Now, The Sympathizer, an extraordinary story and a literary tour-de-force, will be shared with tens of millions of viewers in an HBO seven episode mini-series beginning on Sunday night, April 14. The “big names” starring in the HBO series are Robert Downey Jr., and Sandra Oh, and, it will introduce us to an entire ensemble of Vietnamese actors, including Hoa Xuande in the lead role of The Captain. Today, Xuande has only a smattering of followers on Instagram. When the series concludes in late May, he’ll have hundreds of thousands. That’s how powerful the role of The Captain is in The Sympathizer.

The Sympathizer itself never leaves you; it disturbs you in your sleep, and when you are awake. You can smell the Napalm as you frenetically turn the pages, and hear the sound of helicopters whirling, when, in fact, it was just your car’s engine sputtering. It is transformative.

I first read Nguyen’s haunting language during the early summer of the American Presidential campaign of 2016, and repeated the “if” sequence dozens of times during the campaign’s closing days.

I traveled around North Carolina observing Barack & Michelle Obama, and Elizabeth Warren try mightily to win that important swing state for Hillary Clinton. I interviewed dozens of voters for Clinton, Trump or “unaffiliated,” entered historic African-American churches constructed since before slavery was dismantled, and listened to the rhythm of the voices of the citizens with whom I spoke. The cadence of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s words echoed in my ears each day, as the “Ifs” of that historic campaign began to be tallied well before the first votes were cast.

I contemplated how things might be dramatically different “if only” a few things were changed:

If history had taken a quicker turn toward the arc of justice, if everyone’s skin color were the same; if furniture were still being made in North Carolina’s factories, and clothing in it’s mills; if I had become an attorney or a diplomat and moved away; if my Jesus could sit down and have a beer with yours, and pick ribs clean together; if I was not frightened by the darkness of your skin and the bright, bold hope in your eyes, and if you did not resent my very existence on the same street where you lived as a sign of your own failure; if I was a teacher or a clergyman or a doctor and could heal your wounds, then maybe my touch would not be so repulsive to you; if I was raised to read about Rosie riveting airplane bolts as well as adoring the Blessed Mother; if Hilter had perhaps, found love, and the murders of millions never happened; if weapons were not invented that could vaporize thousands of children while they rode their bicycles; if we acknowledged that we were all pawns in a game played by the rich and powerful; if we understood that killing because of someone’s choice for loving was an act of violence against ourselves.

I went back, again and again, to that serpentine, ever-ending sentence in The Sympathizer, and my mind was exploding into thousands of new directions:

If some of us had not called ourselves Democrats or Republicans or White Nationalists or Socialists or Pragmatists or Progressives; if there were no poor people or poor healthcare, or run down housing where roaches dart from room to room carrying our resentments; if Muskie hadn’t cried, nor Nixon lied, or Joe Biden’s son died, or, if Mario Cuomo tried, at least once, to be President; if we were all connected by more than a flickering screen, or image on an I-phone, like family, not alone, not so mean; if Trump’s father loved him more than money, or Bill Clinton fell down the steps leading to Loretta Lynch’s plane and expired before being exposed; if Hillary put her dog before the data and walked free among the trees in Wisconsin or Michigan or Pennsylvania a few more times; if more people thought, or read, or voted, or listened before talking, or choked on their own bile while spewing their vileness of hate; if there was a God or force or some High court that kept the good alive, and punished the evil for diminishing the dignity of others, then maybe…maybe I could sleep, just sleep through the night.

And now The Sympathizer, the HBO mini-series, hits this nation’s consciousness while some 1200 Israelis, and tens of thousands of Palestinian children and women have been slaughtered because they got in the way of a vendetta of hate between Hamas, and the ultra-orthodox political extremists in Israel, led by Bibi Netanyahu. My head, again, was overwhelmed with “Ifs”, so again, I sought guidance or solace or something from the pages of The Sympathizer that so mesmerized me:

“…if you would please just turn off the lights; if you would please just turn off the telephone; if you would just stop calling me; 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; is the invisible hand of the market did not hold us by the scruffs of our necks; if the British had defeated the rebels of the new world; if the natives had simply said , ‘Hell, No,’ on first seeing the white man; if the Bible had never been written, and Jesus Christ had never sacrificed; if Adam and Eve still frolicked in the Garden of Eden…”

And, then, as a convert to Judaism by my own choice, and a believer in humanitarianism, I added some conditions of my own:

If Empire after Empire hadn’t ravaged the land of Palestine; if the Ottomans of Turkey had picked the winning side in the Great War; if the British had recognized all brown-skinned people as equal to the White Men of Europe; if the Jewish Holocaust had never happened and there wasn’t a need for a special homeland to protect the Jews; if generations of Palestinian families hadn’t been forced from their homes; if the Arab nations had waged peace instead of war at the outset; if Israel had lived up to its charter and its promise of treating all people equally; if every instinct to hate, was replaced with one to love; if each child born in any country was considered to be our child, regardless of faith or nation or economic condition or race; and, if only, all adults were held accountable for all our children who die on our watch.

Then maybe, just maybe, I might be able to sleep. If only…