While Viet Thanh Nguyen’s new novel, The Committed, is a stand-alone story, it also furthers the intellectual evolution and emotional disintegration of a character from an earlier book. Indeed, The Committed features the return of the unnamed Vietnamese double agent at the heart of Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathizer (2015). This enables Nguyen, a Vietnamese American, to continue his examination of a man whose conscience, far from simply causing him to repent over his moral failings during and after the Vietnam War, torments him to the point of despair and even self-hatred.
The Committed is thin on plot and more cerebral than its predecessor, with the author apparently heedless of the pitfalls of having his erudite protagonist/narrator expatiate upon anti-colonial theory as propounded by the likes of Fanon and Césaire. Yet in a carefully wrought and incremental development, that protagonist’s perception of himself as the consummate “sympathizer” emerges as more apt here than it did in the first book. Although he increasingly sees the faults underlying the ideological constructs towering over both sides of the Vietnam divide, he feels for those of his compatriots propping up either edifice. Oftentimes, the Sympathizer views himself as “a man of two faces and two minds”.
All this leaves him enervated and also stirs a profound sense of loneliness he cannot shake. “I, who could sympathize with anyone, wanted more than anything for someone to sympathize with me”, Nguyen’s protagonist laments. He cannot even confide in his childhood friend and constant companion, Bon, for the latter is staunchly anti-communist and knows nothing of the Sympathizer’s past as a spy for the enemy.
The Sympathizer concluded with the release of the title character and Bon from a communist “re-education” camp in Vietnam, where they were held for a year in the late 1970s. They had returned to their homeland from exile in the US as part of a group of South Vietnamese die-hards bent on fomenting revolution against the North Vietnamese communists who had taken over the South, merged it with the North, and forced them to flee the country in 1975. Their mission failed, they were captured, and the Sympathizer was not spared re-education despite the fact that he was a spy for the very communists re-educating him.
The Committed begins with the Sympathizer and Bon going into exile once again. This time, though, their destination is France, not the US. “Stepping out of the airplane,” the Sympathizer observes of their arrival in Paris, “we were gripped by a sense of relief, for we had reached asylum, the fever dream of all refugees”.
Before long, it becomes apparent that this exile will prove quite different from the earlier one – and not just because Paris is nothing like Los Angeles. Even though Nguyen endows his protagonist with a sharp wit and a nose for sniffing out the hypocrisy of former worldwide colonial power France, he has little with which to propel the story forward, especially in the early going. After all, the Sympathizer is no longer a communist agent reporting to his handler on the Bay of Pigs-like conspiracies hatched by embittered South Vietnamese exiles. He’s a chastened former communist. Torture at the hands of a re-education camp’s commissar who accuses you of having failed the cause at a critical moment will have that effect. All the more so if the commissar is none other than your handler.
In addition, the explosive element Nguyen introduces into the story, namely Bon’s notion of assassinating the camp commissar, who flies to Paris and stays at the Vietnamese embassy, is subject to a time lag. To be sure, one is keen to find out what becomes of Bon’s plan and the Sympathizer’s efforts to thwart it. There’s also the anxious anticipation on the reader’s part that Bon will lash out when he discovers, as Nguyen implies he will, two potentially devastating secrets the Sympathizer has kept from him: the Sympathizer was – as mentioned above – until recently a communist spy; and the camp commissar, whom Bon never saw up close, is their mutual childhood friend, Man. But to have the story hum along until then, Nguyen has to keep the Sympathizer and Bon busy.
Nguyen does this by embroiling the two in a subplot that sees them become members of a drug-dealing gang. He also has the Sympathizer take up residence in his own head for stretches at a time. The gangster stuff, which involves a turf war, is fast-paced, funny, and violent, but periodically feels as though it belongs in another novel. And when Nguyen peers into the Sympathizer’s interiority, there are at least one too many sociopolitical theorists jostling for attention.
Pontification about such theorists’ opinions aside, however, it turns out that this dive into the protagonist’s inner turmoil is precisely what facilitates the novel’s signal accomplishment. Given that the Sympathizer’s final disillusionment with communism occurred only at the end of the earlier novel, Nguyen did not have the chance to deepen his protagonist’s conceptual, and self-conceptual, bifurcation. Here, however, he has an entire story at his disposal to do just that.
Nguyen does not disappoint. Bit by bit, the man animating The Committed is revealed to sympathize with others, in particular Vietnamese of either of two opposing political persuasions, to an extraordinary degree. So much so, in fact, that he has reason to fear the consequences for his already divergent selves. “After all,” the Sympathizer muses at one point, “the screw holding together my two minds had loosened so much that it had come out completely.”