Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Shootouts and Philosophy: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s ‘The Committed’

Ben Eastham reviews The Committed for ArtReview.

In this sequel to the award-winning novel The Sympathizer, Nguyen’s anonymous narrator pursues a nihilistic life in France as a drug dealer for ‘bobo’ Parisians

Courtesy Corsair

The narrator of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2015 debut novel, The Sympathizer, used his French-Vietnamese heritage to his advantage as a double agent before and after the fall of Saigon. Or perhaps it is better to say he was born into the role: able to pass in two cultures, a trespasser in both. Nguyen’s widely anticipated sequel picks up where The Sympathizer left off, with the unnamed narrator on a boat headed for France after his release from a reeducation camp where he was tortured to cure him of the compassion that, while inherent to anyone brought up to identify not only with but as different people, is anathema to the monomaniacal revolutionary. If the conflicted hero of the first book was ‘the sympathizer’ because he could see everything from both sides, the title of the second begs a question: to what is he now ‘committed’?

‘Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom,’ said Chairman Ho Chi Minh in his 1966 appeal to the Vietnamese people, and it is to nothing that the narrator commits himself. The name he chooses for his French passport is Vô Danh, meaning ‘nameless’, and the life he pursues in France is nihilistic. Readers of The Sympathizer will be familiar with Nguyen’s trademark combination of high theory with low genre fiction, and Vô Danh’s transformation into drug dealer for ‘bobo’ Parisian society provides plenty of opportunities to sneak postcolonial philosophy in under the cover provided by shootouts between Arab and East Asian gangs. We could say that this tension between high and low is only one of the many binaries reconciled through Nguyen’s dialectical method, or we could say that sandwiching a cocaine-fuelled orgy in which Catholic priests and corrupt politicians do unspeakable things to nubile girls from the global south in between discourses on Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête (1969) and Hélène Cixous’s Le Rire de la Méduse (2010) is having your cake and eating it. Either way, it’s a lot of fun.

That Nguyen can get away with these and other absurd plot devices – the French-African doorkeeper of a brothel called Heaven is liable to wax on about Frantz Fanon, just in case the reader wasn’t going to get the connection when the bad guy turns up wearing a white mask – is a near-miracle of style. The narrative form expresses an ideological position that ‘nothing’ is a precondition of free will, this ‘nothing’ being the space between fixed identities and determined actions. It is this Sartrean ‘nothing’ (I know it’s Sartrean because the French author’s 1943 L’Être et le Néant is, naturally, discussed on a TV playing in Heaven) that the narrator embodies, an individual operating in the gap between East and West, capitalist and communist, white and Black. That he is both self and other is dramatised – and that this succeeds is the near-miraculous bit – in the narrator’s oscillation between first and second person and the division of this novel into two mirrored parts in which nothing happens, twice. Even these proliferating references to the Western canon – the narrator’s forbidden love is for ‘Lana. Two syllables, two taps of my tongue on my palate. L-l-lah-nah!’ – reinforce the central theme of how difficult it is to escape the ideological structures within which our education takes place. That the narrator can’t stop echoing Voltaire even as he rails against the mission civilisatrice captures the double bind from which a double consciousness must attempt to escape.

Like his anonymous narrator, albeit that he was a child in the company of his family, Nguyen fled to the United States after the fall of Saigon. He shares with postcolonial writers from Césaire to Fanon the dilemma of how to reject the oppressor’s account of history from within the coloniser’s own philosophical and literary tradition. One solution is to graft a treatise on the relative values of violent and nonviolent protest onto an airport thriller about gangsters in early 1980s Paris; another is for the colonised subject to express their gratitude to the coloniser for the gift of Western literature in the words of Nguyen’s narrator: ‘Thank you! Fuck you! Thank you! Fuck you! Thank you! Fuck you! Thank you! Fuck you!’


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