Review of ‚The Committed‘ by Viet Thanh Nguyen
For those who’d enjoyed ‘The Sympathizer’, Nguyen’s debut of 2015 in which he pulled off the perfect literary political thriller, there was a lot of pent up enthusiasm for his new novel. That his first book had been a brilliant take on that highly emotional subject, the Vietnam War, but written not from the perspective of a traumatized American soldier, but rather a Vietnamese/French communist mole in the entourage of an exiled South Vietnamese army general, ensured that it would receive particular attention.
While nothing could quite compare to the opening of ‚The Sympathizer‘ where the nameless hero and his blood brother, Bon, escape from Saigon in the last moments of the Vietnam war during which Bon’s wife and child are killed by a random bullet, Nguyen makes a valiant effort. We join a band of refugees on a boat heading out into the ocean in the hope of rescue and future asylum, with our duo among them. They have successfully escaped from the brutality of the re-education camp to reach Indonesia and end up on a flight to Paris. Bon has sworn to kill all Communists (not realizing that his blood brother is a communist agent) and in particular Man, the faceless commissar of the camp.
After being met at the airport by the hero’s ‘aunt’ we are rapidly introduced to the two strands that will propel the book. The first being the drug dealing and sex business run by the Boss, who they’d met in the camp, which aims to deliver thrilling scenes of lust and violence. The second being lengthy exchanges between characters about Colonialism, Marxism, Capitalism, Identity, Racism, Sexism and Religious Extremism with frequent reference to Césaire, Fanon, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Cixous, Derrida, Adorno, Gramsci and others.
No sooner have the two refugees reported to the Boss with their Kopi luwak (a luxury coffee that passes through the digestive system of the civet cat), which proves to be a disguise for a Class A drug, than our nameless hero’s intention is revealed: “Besides, the French and the Vietnamese shared a love for melancholy and philosophy that the manically optimistic Americans could never understand. The typical American preferred the canned version of philosophy found in how-to manuals, but the average Frenchman and Vietnamese cherished a love of knowledge.’
Nguyen: “These are novels of ideas and politics, and history, and theory, and so on, but there are also spy and crime novels. And I think that you can do all of these things simultaneously. I look for inspiration to the French who like to read philosophy…and detective novels. And these are totally compatible. And that’s part of the spirit of these two books.”
The two strands brush up against each other but never quite connect as in the case of the character known as ‘the eschatological muscle’ who, as the black bouncer at the Boss’s brothel known as Heaven, is found watching a talk show about existentialism.
“ ‘Sartre, he’s okay, the muscle said. I prefer Fanon and Césaire.’
‘Me, too, I said.’
‘The muscle continued watching the debate about Sartre, but his mention of Fanon and Césaire sent me back to the last time that I encountered them, at Occidental College, where I had spent six years studying for my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in American studies. My mentor Professor Hammer…’”
This brief exchange gives an idea of the territory of the book: the philosophizing is going to be demanding and it is not going to be integral to the story.
Nguyen: “Americans are still hung up about the Vietnam War. And indeed much of the world only thinks of Vietnam through the Vietnam War. That’s fine. So I made my down payment with The Sympathizer, but the intention was always to situate my experiences and the experiences of Vietnamese refugees and the Vietnam War in a much larger context for me, which is the unfolding of American power, of French colonialism.”
Coming on the back of his brilliantly synthesized earlier novel The Committed might feel to many like a family’s favourite dish deconstructed. It won’t be served as your Mum always made it, but rather in a way that demands quite some effort to enjoy. Unfortunately, in this case, the drug dealing, honey trap strand came across as a very sweet, over-iced cake, which fell apart on contact with the spoon, while the intellectual elements were the brussel sprouts, which could be palatable, but not interspersed with this particular cake.
Nguyen: “My attitude towards contemporary American fiction is that a lot of it is geared towards easy reading.”
Nguyen throws everything at this enterprise. There are some powerful and humorous aperçus ‘Colonizaton is pedophilia. The paternal country rapes and molests its unfortunate pupils, all in the holy and hypocritical name of the civilizing mission.’ And he finds the streets of Paris ‘narrower than the average French mind’. There is an extraordinarily moving memory of a return to his village and the love of his mother and a half page outburst to his ex-colonizers of ‘Fuck you! Thank you!’ in ever-decreasing print. He also resorts to graphics, huge capitalizations, words patterned on the page and, for the great denouement between our hero, Bon and Man, he switches out of prose and into screenplay mode.
Nyguyen: “And unfortunately, as an adult I’ve learned many, many rules. And in writing The Committed, one of the things I did was simply just to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted to do it. And it was quite freeing.”
Whereas ‚The Sympathizer‘ was the perfect synthesis between thriller and political novel achieved through an innate emotional connection with its subject, ‚The Committed‘ fails to bridge the gap between fiction and thesis. While, as Nguyen says, the experience was freeing for him, to this reader it delivered an inert intellectualization of his polemic packed with a weak mortar of dissociated sex and violence. There will be another novel to make up the trilogy.
Note from the editors: See also Viet Thanh Nguyen on „The Post-Trump Future of Literature“ in this issue.
Well-travelled Robert Wilson is the author of the Bruce Medway-, Charles Boxer- and Javier Falcon-novels. In 2003 his novel Tod in Lissabon (A Small Death in Lisbon) won the „Deutscher Krimipreis“. He has finished a manuscript for a WW II-thriller, set among the exiles in France and Portugal. He is a regular contributor to our nd-of-Year-Issue. His appearance at CrimeMag here.
His essay about Vassily Grossman: Book of the Hour.
His review of Booker Prize winner Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain.