March 2021

by Helen Elliott

‘The Committed’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The philosophical thriller sequel to ‘The Sympathizer’ sends its Vietnamese protagonists to the Paris underworld

Paris, 1981. Three men: Man, Bon, Vo Danh, blood-brothers and survivors of the long Vietnam war. This dazzling novel is the testament of Vo Danh, a name meaning anonymous, or unknown, in Vietnamese. But testament is an inadequate description for this action-filled, philosophical thriller. It’s more like Tarantino slapstick with a postdoc in Camus and Kristeva. Viet Thanh Nguyen won the 2016 Pulitzer for The Sympathizer, covering Vo Danh in earlier days. The Committed (Corsair), though, stands alone.

Vo Danh is obsessed with nothingness. And colonialism, with the accompanying sex and violence. The violence he endures is constant but detached – perpetrators and victims have cartoon names and collectable, boys-own weapons. Vo Danh is called many names, but the two constants are Crazy Bastard and Camus. It depends upon who is addressing him – criminal or intellectual. He prefers Vo Danh, the name on graves all over his country. Open this novel and you fall into his head, his brilliant, seductive head.

The opening joke is that he is a spook, a kind of ghost, because he has two holes in his skull, although he was the other type of spook as well. Nothing is simple for Vo Danh; his brain was bifurcated from conception. His father was French, a priest no less, and his mother an illiterate orphan. The colonial version of immaculate conception? Vo Danh’s existence is one of continued contradiction, particularly in his attitude to France. As a communist, as a Vietnamese, he hates the French. Didn’t his father rape his mother? But his father also saved his mother’s life, fed her, kept her alive. When he arrives at Charles de Gaulle airport he bursts into tears, “overcome to be home at last”. And de Gaulle, he says, is “the greatest of great Frenchmen in recent history. The hero who had liberated France from the Nazis while continuing to enslave us Vietnamese.”

Vo Danh and Bon have come to Paris because they have an appointment with the past. They have heard Man is in Paris, and Bon, a machine-like killer despite his name (“Good”), wants to kill him. Vo Danh is desperate to stop him but must pretend otherwise.

Vo Danh saw his mother killed, he suffered internment and a re-education camp under the communists, he arrived in America on a boat, he was a killer and a spy. He is also a man who is aware of being alive in every moment. Before France, he held strong beliefs. Now, with his beautiful education in French philosophy, he is giving the opposite of belief – nothing – a try. Nothing is courtesy of Samuel Beckett, whose plays performing nothing never leave his head. He becomes a drug dealer. He also starts using what he calls “the remedy”, a pristine white powder not readily available then. Drugs, spies, pimps and gangsters become his life. It is a high life in several ways, with the highs made keener by the unfaceable lows.

The Committed is a cha-cha through Paris at a particular time. The cha-cha, the narrator’s favourite dance (sometimes), is teasing, hot and gets nowhere. It is a fantastic thing. Like the novel, like life itself, it has the odour of humanity. Or inhumanity. You choose. Both thoughts courtesy of Vo Danh, Unknown, of Paris.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

Cover of The Monthly, March 2021
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