Viet Thanh Nguyen burst onto the literary scene about three years ago with his brilliant, Pulitzer-prize winning novel “The Sympathizer”, which dealt with The Vietnam War and its aftermath from the point of view of a double spy; we left off with him departing Vietnam by boat while his blood brother departing Vietnam by airplane just as The North Vietnamese have invaded the South and won the war. His high-school blood brother, Bon, has just seen his wife and child shot to death at the airport as they were about to escape to America. The narrator, known as The Sympathizer, comes to America to try to get the newly arrived military escapees to reattack/reinvade Vietnam, which lands him in a reeducation camp run by the third of the three blood brothers from high school, known as Man; our narrator is put into this camp as he had allowed a communist woman (our narrator is actually a communist posing as an anti-communist, nicely reflecting the American misunderstanding of who was who in that long, endless war), to be raped by three policemen under his authority. The descriptions of this reeducation (read: torture) camp are terrifying but highly effective.
“The Committed” is the follow-up novel, in which our narrator has arrived in Paris in the ’80s with his friend Bon; he is living with a fake “aunt”, who’d been a conduit for messages during the Vietnam war, a sophisticated Parisian woman now; she frequently entertains Parisian intellectuals (one of whom is simply called “The Maoist Professor”, a nice touch, as the intelligentsia in France, the original Western occupiers of Vietnam, have all moved to “The New Left”, and the conversations over beautiful dinner parties chez this fake aunt are just chock-a-block with the writings of (real) theorists of colonialism, from Che Guevara to Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Louis Althusser, Helene Cixous and many others of that era. These conversations are often the height of pomposity, but our narrator sees an opportunity to sell drugs to these Leftists and their many friends (these two trends, political New Left and the world of cocaine, in particular, seem a neat and perfect fit, two trends of the times).
But a drug drop gone wrong has our narrator attacked by a group of Algerian-French thugs, which leads to a series of seemingly endless retributions, murders, tortures etc. as each side (Vietnamese in Paris vs. Arab-French in Paris) go after each other as a matter of pride, neatly fitting into the post-colonialist theories of pitting one minority against another). “The Committed” is mostly a study of post-colonialist theory run through these characters in post-Dien Ben Phu Vietnam, where the French withdrew and, basically, the Americans took over to continue fighting this pointless war in Southeast Asia. The insights brought by these theorists are often very fascinating (while often very pompous, as reinterpreted by these French intelligentsia of The New Left). As such, this odd and often frightening novel can also be very funny in a post-modernist, post-colonialist sort of way: those are some of the great strengths of this often difficult-to-read novel; it’s wisest if the reader knows some of these theories so the book will make some sense (which it sometimes doesn’t as it moves into absurdist irony; all that’s missing are Brecht, Weil, Ionesco, Beckett et. al., it seems). Scenes of torture of our narrator and his buddies sent via blood brother Bon, who is running “the worst Chinese restaurant in Paris” as a front, are, truly, as hilarious as they are horrifying: we have chases, odd escapes, last minute arrivals of good guys/bad guys (unless they’re all bad guys). And our narrator has also brought with him his “confession” from the reeducation camp he has lived through.
That the novel is actually a rewritten version of his “confession” in the reeducation camp which was run by Blood Brother 3,known as Man, whose face had been blown off by napalm in the Vietnam War, is one of the cleverest tropes in recent literature. That our poor narrator has to be reeducated to see his experiences through the lenses of post-colonialist theory, led by his fake aunt and her Maoist professor friend and others, is both brilliant and hilarious concurrently, reminding us equally of the dangers of reeducation from the Right and from the Left. Two reeducations for this man, one in a torture camp in Thailand, one in French academic circles, which sounds almost equally torturous.
“The Committed” is not an easy read, as it’s so full of theory, and the plot line often absurdist, but then, war itself must often seem absurd to those fighting it (American literature is filled with novels about The Vietnam war from the points of view of men who fought there, from Phillip Caputo’s “The Rumor of War” through Denis Johnson’s “Tree of Smoke”, John del Vecchio’s magnificent “The Thirteenth Valley” and Karl Marlantes’ “The Matterhorn”). But it is a very brilliant novel, a superb follow up/sequel to the equally brilliant “The Sympathizer”, though the latter is a bit easier to read, seeming more a conventional mystery of sorts. But then learning new things from reading used to be considered a good thing; whether that will remain true in the era of Facebook and the vapidity of social media is, these days, being put to a real existential test. Either way, “The Committed” is brilliant and well worth reading.