Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen, review — the Vietnamese story Apocalypse Now doesn’t show

Francesca Angelini reviews The Committed for The Sunday Times.

Sardonic humour: Viet Thanh Nguyen
Sardonic humour: Viet Thanh Nguyen

Born in Vietnam and brought up in the US, the academic Viet Thanh Nguyen took 20 years to publish his first novel, The Sympathizer (2015). You sense he needed a long time to fuse together a book so bold and accomplished. The
story of a confession by an unnamed double agent, a communist spy working for the anti-communists after the fall of Saigon, its bones were those of a spy novel. Yet it was richer than that, a meaty medley of genres with a fresh perspective on the Vietnam War, and America’s involvement and cultural retelling of it. Apocalypse Now didn’t emerge looking good. The novel deservedly won the Pulitzer prize.

Think of The Committed as “My Confessions: Vol II”. Set in 1981, it picks up where The Sympathizer left off, with the narrator on a boat filled with refugees. Adopting the name Vo Danh (“Nameless”), he lands in Paris to live with his intellectual, hashish-loving “aunt”, really a communist spy. Vo Danh’s childhood friend and fellow former re-education camp internee Bon accompanies him. Unfortunately Bon, a through-and-through anti-communist whose wife and son were killed by communists early on in The Sympathizer, has no idea Vo Danh is a secret communist. If he were to find out, he’d kill him.

Bon isn’t the only one who Vo Danh has to worry about, though. The pair wind up in a hardcore gang dealing drugs. Rival gangs don’t take a shine to them. Even Vo Danh can’t keep count of the number of times a gun is pointed at his head. All this is lightened by the narrator’s delightfully sardonic humour. And the seedy underbelly of hookers, thugs and unpleasant politicians who resemble Dominique Strauss-Kahn gives fuel to some excellent set pieces. An orgy where a priest does unspeakable things with a rosary bead is hard to dislodge from the mind.

As with The Sympathizer, plot is really secondary, though. Nguyen dines out on his narrator’s compulsion to
see both sides of every issue. A traumatised half-French, half-Vietnamese “man of two faces and two minds”, Vo Danh is strung out by conflicted thoughts about identity, revolution, assimilation and empire. Dense philosophical and political dialectic congest the pages. These are the kinds of gangsters who like to discuss Frantz Fanon’s postcolonial theory. But when one yells, “I don’t need another lecture”, the feeling isn’t necessarily mutual. These are lectures that make you engage.


More Reviews