In a nutshell The Sympathizer is about a nameless captain in the South Vietnam army who is really a double agent and sympathizer of the North. The book begins during the Fall of Saigon, moves to refuge camps, to the USA, and eventually back to Vietnam. The captain, our narrator, is writing the book as a confession.
As I was preparing for the club discussion on the book I went looking discussion questions and was surprised that all the sources I looked at only had the same four questions. They are good ones, however, and I decided to use them if I needed them. Next I went searching for a good review of the book. My favorite was written by Philip Caputo for the New York Times. I highly recommend you read his review if you also are charged with the job of leading a discussion on this book. I took notes as I read and from those notes I had my talking points and was able to formulate some questions of my own.
Here are some of the ideas I got from Caputo's article:
- Viet Thanh Nguyen (pronounced 'win') was born in Vietnam and came to the US in 1975 as a child. He is a professor at the University of Southern California. The book, written from the Vietnamese point of view, is actually ground-breaking.
- Literature coming out of powerful countries, like the US, usually feature story lines focused on characters from that country. So there are lots of stories about Vietnam, but most deal with what is was like to be an American soldier in the war, etc.
- The book won just about every book prize out there, including the Pulitzer prize. We talked about several of these prizes and what it means to win them.
- It has several universal themes worth exploring.
- The opening line, "I am a man of two minds" and the nameless narrator's duality provided a lot to talk about.
- We chewed on the names that characters were given and then used, even overused, including why the narrator went unnamed.
- Overwriting examples
- "The blood of friendship is thicker than the water of ideology."
- Black humor or satire? Examples.
- We talked a lot about the conclusion and how our feelings/thoughts about Vietnam have changed because of the book.
- Discuss the quote "Vietnam was the first war where the losers would write the history instead of the victors."
The Sympathizer "fills a void in 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" (Caputo).
The Pulitzer committee lauded The Sympathizer as "a layered immigrant tale told in the wry, confessional voice of a 'man of two minds' -- and two countries, Vietnam and the United States."
The trick for any book club wanting to tackle this excellent book is getting the members to actually read it. I recommend the audio version, expertly read by Francois Chau. It solves the problems my group members had with the dense text. Whatever you decide, it is worth the effort.