15 reviews

The Sympathizer: A Novel
by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Published: 2016-04-12
Paperback : 384 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 9 of 15 members
The winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as seven other awards, The Sympathizer is the breakthrough novel of the year. With the pace and suspense of a thriller and prose that has been compared to Graham Greene and Saul Bellow, The Sympathizer is a sweeping epic of love ...
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The winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as seven other awards, The Sympathizer is the breakthrough novel of the year. With the pace and suspense of a thriller and prose that has been compared to Graham Greene and Saul Bellow, The Sympathizer is a sweeping epic of love and betrayal. The narrator, a communist double agent, is a ?man of two minds,” a half-French, half-Vietnamese army captain who arranges to come to America after the Fall of Saigon, and while building a new life with other Vietnamese refugees in Los Angeles is secretly reporting back to his communist superiors in Vietnam. The Sympathizer is a blistering exploration of identity and America, a gripping espionage novel, and a powerful story of love and friendship.

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Discussion Questions

1. Discuss the relevance of the title, The Sympathizer. Who do you think the author wants the reader to sympathize with? What are the different ways throughout the book that the author demonstrates sympathetic characters and situations?

2. The novel opens with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: “Let us not become gloomy as soon as we hear the word ‘torture’: in this particular case there is plenty to offset and mitigate that word—even something to laugh at.” How is this sentiment explored in The Sympathizer? Discuss this statement as it applies to the characters in the novel and Vietnam.

3. How has the refugee experience in America changed since the Vietnam War? Has it changed much or not at all? Or both?

4. What adjustments has the United States made in how it deals with countries during and after war? What are the lessons learned from the Vietnam War and how have those lessons been applied to current wars?

5. What is the author saying about the effects of war on politics?

6. How are dreams used to discuss duality? What deeper meaning do the dreams represent for the Captain’s already fractured psyche?

7. Why do you think the author included a supernatural element in The Sympathizer? How does the presence of ghosts change the protagonist? What do they represent to the narrator? Are the readers meant to take the presence of the ghosts literally?

8. Guilt is a theme throughout the novel. What is the role of guilt in the lives of the characters? Does it compel them to try and right past wrongs, or make them more culpable? Or both?

9. What is the function of sexuality in the novel? How are sexuality and the war intertwined, according to Nguyen?

10. Mao said: “art and literature were crucial to revolution” what role, if any, does art and literature play in politics? “Movies were America’s way of softening up the rest of the world.” Do you agree or disagree with this assessment? Provide examples of movies you have seen that accomplish this.

11.On page 274, Ms. Mori declares “you must claim America” what does she mean by this? Do you agree or disagree with her? Do you think this is how refugees and immigrants feel once they come to America? Explain your answers.

12. Why is the narrator of The Sympathizer important? Is he a reliable narrator?

13. What affect does the narrator’s arrival in America have on his “two minds?” Discuss the changes in his relationship with Man, Bon, and the General after he becomes a refugee.

14. On page 15, the narrator says about Man and Bon: “These men were better than any real brothers I could have had, for we had chosen each other.” Discuss the role family plays in the lives of the different characters in the novel.

15. The narrator states early in the novel: “If ever circumstances forced us into a situation where death was the price of our brotherhood, I had no doubt that Man and I would pay.” Do you think he is foreshadowing events to come? Why or why not? Why do you think he feels this way about himself and Man but doesn’t include Bon?

16. Throughout the novel Man, Bon, and the narrator are referred to as a group, but let’s take a deeper look at the blood brothers individually—who is Man, Bon, and the narrator? What makes them blood brothers and what sets them apart? Of the three why is the narrator the only one without a name?

17. Why is the Captain more upset by his reaction to being called a bastard than the word itself?

18. There are several compelling female characters: Madame, Ms. Mori, the narrator’s mother, and Lana. Discuss how Nguyen fleshes out the female characters and their roles in the novel.

19. What does the narrator discover about himself when he travels to the Philippines to consult on The Hamlet? What is his greatest challenge there? How are his expectations and memories transformed by this visit? In what way does the Captain identify with the movie extras? How does he set himself apart from them?

20. The Captain describes himself as “morally disorientated” following the death of the crapulent Major, what do you think he means by this? Do you think he discovers something previously unknown about himself? Explain your opinions.

21. At one point Sonny describes love as “being able to talk to someone else without effort, without hiding, and at the same time to feel absolutely comfortable not saying a word.” How do you describe love? Discuss whether you have experienced the kind of love Sonny feels for Ms. Mori.

22. How does Sonny serve as a foil to the narrator? Why do you think the narrator confesses to Sonny? What is the significance of the narrator’s visit to Lana before meeting with Sonny? He also returns to her after the “deed is done,” why do you suppose he does this? What is he hoping to find?

23. What does the female agent mean when she is asked her name and she replies: “My surname is Viet and my given name is Nam?” In that moment, is she meant to represent Vietnam? Who else in the novel could be a substitute for the country? How does Vietnam function as a character in the story?

24. Do you feel the harrowing experience of the female agent was meant to humanize the narrator? What was your initial reaction after he recalls the memory? How did this affect your attitude toward the narrator?

25. At the end of the novel, the narrator “graduates” and is finally allowed to meet the commissar. How does the narrator react when he learns who that is? What was your reaction to the reveal?

26. After everything that the narrator has been through his last words are a passionate celebration of life “We will live!” Why do you think the author chose to end the novel on such an optimistic note? Were you surprised by the ending? What are your thoughts about what is happening in the last chapter?

Reading Group Guide by Keturah Jenkins.

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This an epic novel- expertly & creatively written from the perspective of a secret agent writing his confession of his involvement with the war in Vietnam. The writing is rich and plums the depth of the... (read more)

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