Star Tribune | Review: ‘The Committed,’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Jenny Shank reviews The Committed for the Star Tribune.

When we last met the “man of two minds” — the nameless narrator of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Sympathizer” — he and his friend Bon had just undergone mind-shattering torture and re-education at the hands of their childhood friend, Man.

The narrator, the son of a French priest and an impoverished Vietnamese mother, suffered relentless persecution as a boy due to his status as a biracial “bastard,” until he befriended Bon and Man. Bon grew into an anti-Communist South Vietnamese patriot, and unbeknown to him, Man and the narrator became Communists. In “The Sympathizer,” the narrator spied on the anti-Communist Vietnamese refugees in America in the wake of the Vietnam War.

In “The Committed,” the narrator is no longer a spy, but remains relentlessly loyal to Bon, who resettles from a refugee camp with him to Paris, still knowing few of his secrets. Bon aims to kill Man, whose napalm-melted face conceals his true identity. The narrator vows to save them both. This potent friendship triangle drives the plot.

Although Nguyen foreshadows the showdown between the three “blood brothers” from the first page, he doesn’t rush it, first plunging his characters into the Parisian gangster demimonde. The narrator realizes his best prospect for employment is selling hashish. As he explores Paris, his insignificance to those he’s observing allows him to draw keen conclusions, such as why the French so love American jazz: “partially because every sweet note reminded them of American racism, which conveniently let them forget their own racism.”

The plot of “The Committed” is action-packed with sex, drugs and violence, but those events don’t characterize the essence of the book. The strength of this novel is the same as that of its predecessor — the probing, sensitive, educated and droll mind of its narrator, who perceives power dynamics that few examine. After the torture he underwent in “The Sympathizer,” his head rings with a chorus of voices, and he frequently dialogues with various fragments of his consciousness.

Nguyen fills “The Committed” with playful literary allusions and delves into critical colonization theory, especially the work of Frantz Fanon. As “The Committed” unfolds, and the narrator becomes ever more mentally disintegrated, he personifies the contradictions and quicksilver identity shifts of a person raised in a colonized country who becomes a multilingual refugee twice over. It’s heady stuff, but it retains reader appeal through Nguyen’s literary virtuosity.

One sentence weaves the narrator’s mental acrobatics with a description of a life-or-death street fight, carries on for six pages and retains absolute clarity and propulsion. It’s the kind of run-on sentence that writing teachers might warn their students against attempting — but Nguyen finesses it with the grace and flair of a parkour athlete flipping his body over the obstacles presented by a Paris street.

With “The Committed,” Nguyen has once again animated the complexity of a refugee’s situation and plunged into a thicket of thorny matters of politics, nationality, race and identity, but has done so with characteristic heart, style and good humor that will leave readers both schooled and entertained.

Category: Reviews

 

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