THE SYMPATHIZER

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

A profound, startling, and beautifully crafted debut novel, The Sympathizer is the story of a man of two minds, someone whose political beliefs clash with his individual loyalties. In dialogue with but diametrically opposed to the narratives of the Vietnam War that have preceded it, this novel offers an important and unfamiliar new perspective on the war: that of a conflicted communist sympathizer.

It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain,

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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

A profound, startling, and beautifully crafted debut novel, The Sympathizer is the story of a man of two minds, someone whose political beliefs clash with his individual loyalties. In dialogue with but diametrically opposed to the narratives of the Vietnam War that have preceded it, this novel offers an important and unfamiliar new perspective on the war: that of a conflicted communist sympathizer.

It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong. The Sympathizer is the story of this captain: a man brought up by an absent French father and a poor Vietnamese mother, a man who went to university in America, but returned to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s astonishing novel takes us inside the mind of this double agent, a man whose lofty ideals necessitate his betrayal of the people closest to him. A gripping spy novel, an astute exploration of extreme politics, and a moving love story, The Sympathizer explores a life between two worlds and examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.

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  • Grove Press
  • Paperback
  • April 2016
  • 9780802124944

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About Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam and raised in America. His novel The Sympathizer won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as five other awards. He is also the author of the nonfiction books Nothing Ever Dies and Race and Resistance. The Aerol Arnold Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, he lives in Los Angeles.

Author Website

Praise

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Winner of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction

Winner of the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize

Named a Best Book of the Year by the New York Times Book ReviewWall Street JournalWashington PostSeattle Times, Daily Beast, Kansas City StarLibrary JournalKirkus ReviewsPublishers WeeklyBooklistGuardianNational PostMPR News, Amazon, Slate, Flavorwire, Entropy, Quartz, and Globe and Mail

“[A] remarkable debut novel . . . [Nguyen] brings a distinctive perspective to the war and its aftermath. His book fills a void in the literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless while it compels the rest of us to look at the events of 40 years ago in a new light. But this tragicomic novel reaches beyond its historical context to illuminate more universal themes . . . The nameless protagonist-narrator, a memorable character despite his anonymity, is an Americanized Vietnamese with a divided heart and mind. Nguyen’s skill in portraying this sort of ambivalent personality compares favorably with masters like Conrad, Greene, and le Carré. . . . Both thriller and social satire. . . . In its final chapters, The Sympathizer becomes an absurdist tour de force that might have been written by a Kafka or Genet.”—Philip Caputo, New York Times Book Review (cover review)

“The great achievement of The Sympathizer is that it gives the Vietnamese a voice and demands that we pay attention. Until now, it’s been largely a one-sided conversation — or at least that’s how it seems in American popular culture . . . We’ve never had a story quite like this one before. . . . [Nguyen] has a great deal to say and a knowing, playful, deeply intelligent voice . . . There are so many passages to admire. Mr. Nguyen is a master of the telling ironic phrase and the biting detail, and the book pulses with Catch-22-style absurdities.”Sarah Lyall, New York Times 

“Thrilling in its virtuosity, as in its masterly exploitation of the espionage-thriller genre, The Sympathizer was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and has come to be considered one of the greatest of Vietnam War novels . . . The book’s (unnamed) narrator speaks in an audaciously postmodernist voice, echoing not only Vladimir Nabokov and Ralph Ellison but the Dostoyevsky of Notes from the Underground.”Joyce Carol Oates, New Yorker

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? 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?

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

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

6. 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?

7. 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?

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

9. 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.

10. 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.

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

12. 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.

13. 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.

14. 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?

15. 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?

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

17. 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.

18. 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?

19. 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.

20. 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.

21. 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?

22. 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?

23. 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?

24. 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?

25. 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?