Are white people ever referred to as inscrutable?” asks the narrator of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s new novel, The Committed. “No, you would say that a white person who is hard to read has a poker face, which has a positive connotation, a strategic one, suggesting a careful withholding of information, whereas we are just inscrutable because you white people believe that we always have something to hide.”
In this sequel to The Sympathizer—his cerebral Pulitzer Prize–winning thriller—Nguyen turns his exacting eye and wit toward 1980s France, critiquing the ways the nation fails to grapple with its colonial past and struggles to integrate minorities.
Previously unnamed, Nguyen’s narrator now calls himself VO DANH, or “anonymous” in Vietnamese, as a “little joke on French bureaucracy.” The bastard son of a French priest and a Vietnamese mother, he comes to Paris with Bon, his best friend and blood brother—both of them displaced and dispossessed again, after stints in the United States as well as Vietnamese reeducation and Indonesian refugee camps.
The former Communist sleeper agent is a man of “two faces and two minds,” he tells us repeatedly, with a screw loose after the strain of trying to keep his sanity intact for so many years. “Was I a revolutionary or a reactionary?” he wonders. “…. To what was I committed?”
Accidentally—and then completely—he commits himself to capitalism in its purest white powder form, as he deals drugs in the leftist intellectual and political circles of his glamorous “aunt,” although their relationship is not one of blood but of association.
Her lovers spout revolutionary theory and condescendingly tell the narrator, “You have been through a great deal.” Considering what he has suffered—and the suffering he has inflicted on three continents—it’s a darkly funny understatement.
One of the narrator’s customers, the socialist politician BFD, accuses him of being a “communitarian”—that is, in the grip of identity politics.
“You like to think of yourself as just a man, not a white man…for me to call you a white man is unacceptable, downright racist,” the narrator shoots back, taking aim at France’s attempts at color-blind, secular “universalism.”
Such a dialectic remains at the heart of contemporary culture wars; consider the attempted erasure of Black Lives Matter with the slogan All Lives Matter.
Despite its abundance of critical theory, The Committed is anything but didactic. At times, it veers into the scatological, as in a running gag about the state of the toilet the narrator cleans in the worst Asian restaurant in Paris and the hilariously disgusting way he diverts the attention of a mistress to the Boss, a crime mogul.
The narrator and his fellow gangsters cite Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon with the same gusto that they stab, shoot, and kill their way through an underworld populated with colorful characters. These include the punningly nicknamed poet-gangster Le Cao Boi (a “Baudelaire with a baseball bat”) and the Seven Dwarfs, who ambidextrously wield cleavers while enforcing the orders of the Boss, who bestows another title on the narrator: Crazy Bastard.
Here, Nguyen playfully subverts the tropes of crime novels, their stylized sex and violence. At one point, the narrator, now middle-aged and soft in the belly, fends off young Algerians in an eye-popping sentence that goes on for half a chapter.
The novel’s portrayal of Paris’s seedy underbelly comes with an abundance of absurd elements, among them Heaven, a brothel with a prostitute skilled in “every technique and trick known since Eve first coaxed a snake to talk,” and Opium, an Orientalist fantasy of a nightclub, with sexy waitresses, water pipes, and private rooms modeled on opium dens. “Just the hint of opium without the actual opium,” Nguyen writes.
Try as the narrator might to outrun his past, he’s haunted. There are the men he’s killed, a “chorus of ghosts,” as well as his guilt over the Communist agent he failed to save. There is a former lover, who comes bearing a surprise, and also the return of Man, a blood brother turned reeducation camp commissar.
Bon—who knows neither the narrator’s history as a sleeper agent nor the true identity of the commissar—is hell-bent on revenge. No matter on which shores he lands, he remains ardently anti-Communist, a “devout Catholic and a calm killer.”
By contrast, the narrator twice resists a chance to exact retribution on his torturer. But he’s left no less devastated.
The Sympathizer takes the form of a confession, and so, too, does The Committed, in which the narrator pens his account from a posh sanitarium. “You would have been quite happy if your misbegotten life had provided enough material for only one volume, but here you are with so much to confess!” he exclaims. The book ends on a cliff-hanger with the return of yet another old friend, setting up the final installment of the trilogy Nguyen intends to write.
Recently, French politicians and intellectuals warned that imported American progressive ideals threaten the country’s national unity, highlighting the ways the cultural questions raised in The Committed remain far from settled.
What Nguyen examines in this trenchant novel reflects the state of the narrator himself, “unkillable as a cliché,” embedded in language and inescapable as history.•