Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | How to be double minded, sympathetic and committed

Michael Magras reviews The Committed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Most people, if they’re honest, will acknowledge they’re an aggregate of contradictions. The majority of those discrepancies are likely inconsequential. In some cases, the contradiction may be greater, as when a country or individual is both colonizer and colonized.

Take, for example, the narrator of “The Committed,” Viet Thanh Nguyen’s sequel to his debut novel, 2015’s “The Sympathizer.” Known only by the name on his passport, Vo Danh, which means nameless, he has French and Vietnamese blood. He refers to himself throughout this excellent follow-up as two people, “me and myself,” someone with the frustrating ability to see two sides of an issue.

Some of those issues are chilling. In one of the book’s many philosophical insights, he says he doesn’t feel French or Vietnamese or, for that matter, American—as readers of the first book know, he spent years in the US during the 1970s “as a Communist spy inserted into the shabby ranks of the exiled South Vietnamese army.”

Yet his hybrid nature gives him unique insight into each culture. He notes that most people equate France with elegance and culture. According to him, however, many French view Vietnam, a country France had colonized, as shorthand for “war, tragedy, and death.” The French “saw our shared past as a tragic happenstance of history, a romantic love story gone wrong,” whereas the narrator sees it “as a crime that they had committed.”

Mr. Nguyen explores many dichotomies in this book, from different interpretations of “committed”—commitment to a cause, the possibility of committing suicide—to the clash between capitalism and communism.

The story is set in 1981. The narrator and his “maniacally anticommunist” blood brother Bon have arrived in France from Jakarta. Both were refugees after having spent a year at a reeducation camp and two more on Galang Island in Indonesia.

Bon may be a blood brother, but he’s unaware of the narrator’s communist past. Nor does he know the true nature of his relationship to a third blood brother known as the faceless man.

The two have come to France to begin a new life. They go to Little Asia to work for the Boss, whose life Bon had saved at the refugee camp. Soon, the narrator sells hashish and other drugs to prominent customers. Mr. Nguyen complicates the plot by introducing a rival group of gangsters and by having his protagonists participate in a show that indulges in racist stereotypes with the intent of blackmailing eminent attendees.

The richness of this book comes from its quieter moments and observations about politics and colonialism. The narrator offers cultural commentary throughout, as when he notes that any group consisting of “more than a handful of people who were not white made the French nervous,” or that the average American hates all symbols except “guns, flags, Mom, and apple pie.”

“The Committed” is a thriller, but of the intellectual sort, one in which a heavily muscled Black man with a bandage on his cheek is “a self-proclaimed eschatologist” who, while watching a debate on Sartre, says his preferred philosophers are Fanon and Césaire.

Occasionally, Mr. Nguyen errs by indulging tropes of hardboiled thrillers, like the gun-toting “luscious secretary” in a fetching nightgown, or blood-soaked shoot-‘em-ups one might find in a B-movie.

For the most part, the novel is a smart take on past events relevant to today’s struggles. Late in the book, the narrator says, “Revolutions are always about making the impossible possible.” Those who seek revolution—for a country’s independence or any other worthy cause—can take heart in knowing that his statement is no contradiction.

Category: Reviews


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