A Political Novel

In 2015, Nguyễn Thanh Việt made a splash in the literary world with his debut novel, The Sympathizer. Many a literary pundit has lauded it for its distinct voice and its refreshing insight into the Vietnam War. In the world of literature and film, the Vietnam War was a popular subject often captured and studied under the American lenses but Nguyễn, through his work, challenged these conventions, cunningly assimilating the American perspective with the Vietnamese voice. The result was a riveting literary tour-de-force that has captivated the general reading public. The story of the anonymous double agent was a massive critical success, prominently bagging the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and marking the emergence of a new voice in literature.

Over half a decade after his highly heralded debut, Nguyễn made his long awaited literary comeback with his second novel, The Committed. In his second novel, Nguyễn reintroduced the same unnamed voice that loomed large in The Sympathizer. From the United States, the center of gravity of the Sympathizer’s story shifted to France. Following what can only be assumed as his “successful” re-education, the Sympathizer, an allusion to his communist leanings, together with his friend, Bon, moved to Paris. Adopting the name Vo Danh (which means “anonymous” in Vietnamese), as per his passports, the Sympathizer entered a new phase of adventure in a land seemingly foreign but with a culture not largely separate from where he grew up in.

In the native land of his father who abandoned him and his mother, the Sympathizer stayed with his Vietnamese French “aunt.” Bon, however, opted to move out and live separately from them because of the aunt’s pro-communist stance. Bon developed strong anti-communist sentiments following the unfortunate demise of his wife and son while they were fleeing their native Vietnam. Unused to the Parisian flair, both the Sympathizer and Bon were accidentally pulled into the embrace of a Vietnamese criminal consortium. Under the employ and apprenticeship of the “Boss”, a prominent gangster or a bandit (either is fine), who made a name and built a fortune for himself in the Parisian underground, the Sympathizer and Bon slowly immersed in the Parisian culture.

“I was a little person who spoke an immigrant version of his language, the language of a country that basked in the best of both worlds: to have once been an imperial power that had mugged weaker countries at gunpoint, while no longer being an imperial power and having to deal with pesky things like mosquitoes and malaria or resentment and revolutions.”

~ Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Committed

Turning the pages of The Committed, what I unearthed is a multifaceted and multilayered narrative that zeroes in on the experiences of its chief narrator. Of these layers, there were three that prominently stood out and which defined the novel. These three layers, in turn, revolve around three spheres – the past, the present, and the self. In a quality it share with its predecessor, the past reverberates all throughout The Committed. It is by delving into and challenging history that Nguyễn makes his prose flourish. He never shied away from grappling with discomfiting realities. In The Sympathizer, Nguyễn challenged the misconceptions about the Vietnamese War. In his second novel, he set out to accomplish an even more daunting task, dissecting the spirit of colonialism.

As history would have it, Vietnam was integrated into the union of French Indochina in 1887. The French colonizer, like most of its fellow European imperialists, were driven by the goal of “civilizing” what they consider as backward societies. In this spirit, the French instituted drastic political and cultural changes that altered the landscape of Vietnamese society. Years of the First Indochina War led by the Việt Minh, under its popular revolutionary leader Hồ Chí Minh, finally culminated with the overthrow of the French colonizers in 1954. The influences of the French, however, are still prevalent in the contemporary Vietnamese society. French architecture in key cities, for instance, were converted into tourist attractions.

To colonialism, the Sympathizer reflected: “Colonies were a pearl choker adorning the alabaster white neck of the colonizer. And sometimes a Pear of the Orient could be a Paris of the Orient as well. The Parisians and the French and just about everyone meant that as a compliment, the only kind a colonizer could give to the colonized.” To further elucidate on colonialism, Nguyễn introduced a diverse cast of characters from Algeria and French West Africa. Drawing parallels from the collective experiences of Vietnamese, Algerian, and French Western African, the novel dissected the legacy of colonialism, of how its impact and consequences still reverberates in the contemporary. This breaks the illusion, or perhaps, lie, that colonizers peddled to rationalize their actions.

The impact of colonialism, however, reverberates beyond history, goes beyond warding the colonizers off of one’s native land. The consequences of the colonial expansion in the present is the second seminal facet defining the narrative. The Committed aptly captured these consequences through the ventures of the Sympathizer in the French capital. For instance, the drug trade, in which our hero finds himself tangled in, is one of the highest forms of capitalism. Colonialism, and its inevitable erosion, gave way to the ascent of communism and the proliferation of religious extremism.

What I’m saying is that all revolutions have excesses. It’s in their nature. People are too exuberant, too passionate. They get carried away. Feelings run high. And sometimes the wrong people are damaged. But you have to put yourself and what happened to you aside. You have to take the long view.”

~ Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Committed

The Sympathizer’s own experiences of immigrating and assimilating into new countries and cultures are also peak consequences of colonialism. As violence escalate and tumult settle in their native land, denizens of colonized nations often find themselves in proverbial boats leading out of the pandemonium, touching down in foreign lands. The promise of a new life, however, is marred by racism, discrimination, and are often . As can be expected, communist and anti-communist sentiments were explored extensively. It was further enriched by its juxtaposition on the sea of capitalism. The dichotomies between capitalism and communism made up for an interesting discourse.

At the heart of the narrative, is the the Sympathizer himself. He was the third pillar that defined The Committed. His voice and his enigmatic character resonated all throughout the story. He is an unreliable narrator but he was masterfully crafted from the author’s imagination. The Sympathizer, or Vo Danh, is the epitome of a deep and complex character. He was imbued with intelligence but he was also a man of contrasts. He was well-read and philosophical. He was self-aware but self-deprecating, insightful, and witty. Whilst his anonymity characterized Nguyen’s narratives, in both The Sympathizer and The Committed, it was his realizations and personal views that formed an integral part of the narrative. Despite his unreliability, he has firm and interesting views on a plethora of subjects, ranging from colonialism to racism. There were also rich commentaries on Vietnamese, American, and French people, society and culture.

In stark contrast to its predecessor, the novel was abound with philosophical theories. Interwoven into the story are debates between the characters, some possessing interesting nicknames such as “the Maoist PhD” and “the eschatological muscle”. The works and words of prominent philosophers such as Theodor W. Adorno, Louis Althusser, Simone de Beauvoir, Walter Benjamin, Aimé Césaire, Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, Jean-Paul Sartre, Voltaire were ubiquitous. These philosophical discourses also subtly underscored other elements of the narrative, that of existentialism and identity in a postcolonial world.

The Committed, to say the least, is a dense novel. The novel was never bereft of ambition. It covered a vast ground and grappled with a plethora of subjects, covering philosophy, colonialism, communism, and even loyalty. These plethora of subjects would have not worked had it not been for Nguyen’s engaging and witty writing style. The narrative was held together by Nguyễn Thanh Việt’s assured prose. He demonstrated, again, what he was capable of, conducting a master class in crafting inner monologues and getting to the heart of the unreliable narrator. There was also an ostensible change in the narrator’s voice. His voice in The Sympathizer was raw, but in The Committed, his voice took a firmer shape.

“There was only one solution to this alienation that was created not by the Negro or the bastard, but by the real bastards, the racists and colonizers who blamed the victim for the conditions that the victimizer created. And that solution was “to rise above this absurd drama that others have staged around me, to reject the two terms that are equally unacceptable, and, through one human being, to reach out for the universal.”

~ Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Committed

The Committed was not without its fault. It was both familiar, through the struggles of the Sympathizer, and unfamiliar, with the emergence of new elements and themes. Like The Sympathizer, the book was verbose, brimming with details, some whimsically situated, making the readers constantly question their relevance to the story as a whole. But I guess, all writers are in one way or another guilty of this. The introduction of philosophy into the story also weighed heavily on my appreciation of the story. At times, I found myself at odds with these ideologies for there were one too many and they also presented contrasting ideas. It dragged and made the story a little confusing, if not muddled.

Whilst The Committed can use some tightening in its prose, was nevertheless an impressionable read. Nguyễn Thanh Việt yet again demonstrated what he is capable of as a writer. A genius in weaving the narrative voice, he has, without a doubt, crafted one of the most memorable characters and voices in the Sympathizer, Vo Danh or Crazy Bastard. Initially guised as a mystery, it was parts historical and parts philosophical, but above all, it was a bold political statement that delved into a score of seminal subjects. In satirizing elements of politics, and history, he produced a powerful narrative. From observations, both in his first and second novel, there is one clear conclusion: Nguyễn Thanh Việt is neither afraid nor is he daunted of the task of grappling with inconvenient truths.

As shown in both his works, Nguyễn, never takes sides but he never leave stones unturned, openly questioning everything. This, in turn, makes him a better storyteller: “Perhaps my problem was that I thought we Vietnamese had hit bottom, under the French, and then saw there was another bottom beneath that with the Americans, when in reality, there was yet another bottom to discover – our own.”

Ratings

82%

Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 26%
Writing (25%) – 20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 11%

Book Specs

Author:  Nguyễn Thanh Việt
Publisher: Grove Press
Publishing Date: March 2021
Number of Pages: 341
Genre: Political Novel, Historical Fiction

Synopsis

The long-awaited follow up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathizer, which has sold more than one million copies worldwide, The Committed follows the man of two minds as he arrives in Paris in the early 1980s with his blood brother Bon. The pair try to overcome their pasts and ensure their future by engaging in capitalism in one of its purest forms: drug dealing.

Traumatized by his reeducation at the hands of his former best friend, Man, and struggling to assimilate into French culture, the Sympathizer finds Paris both seductive and disturbing. As he falls in with a group of left-wing intellectuals whom he meets at dinner parties given by his French Vietnamese “aunt,” he finds stimulation for his mind but also customers for his narcotic merchandise. But the new life he is making has perils he has not foreseen, whether the self-torture of addiction, the authoritarianism of a state locked in a colonial mindset, or the seeming paradox of how to reunite his two closest friends whose worldviews put them in absolute opposition. The Sympathizer will need all his wits, resourcefulness, and moral flexibility if he is to prevail.

Both suspenseful and existential, The Committed is a blistering portrayal of commitment and betrayal that will cement Viet Thanh Nguyen’s position in the firmament of American letters.

About the Author

To learn more about the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, click here.