“soars on the strength of language and passion for the ideas [the author] works hard to depict here, so that if you loved The Sympathizer, and you don’t mind the insistent history lesson, you’ll be beside yourself with joy to read The Committed.”
The Committed is one third fictional story and two thirds treatise on the primary economic theories of the world, and on the ways in which they have shaped societies, with all their visible effects, the primary one being the displacement of people. The creation of sudden refugee waves instigated by this or that other dictator’s interpretation of what these theories really mean, the theories themselves also victims of individual men with ambition, who perceive it as their right to use the defense of capitalism, socialism, communism, or some other ism, to determine their own role in history via force, corruption, or cowardice:
“We, the unwanted, wanted so much. We wanted food, water, and parasols, although umbrellas would be fine. We want to clean clothes, baths, and toilets, even of the squatting kind, since squatting on land was safer and less embarrassing than clinging to the bulwark of a rolling boat with once’s posterior hanging over the edge. We wanted rain, clouds, and dolphins. We wanted it to be cooler during the hot day and warmer during the freezing night. We wanted an estimated time of arrival. We wanted not to be dead on arrival. We wanted to be rescued from being barbecued by the unrelenting sun. We wanted television, movies, music, anything with which to pass the time. We wanted love, peace, and justice, except for our enemies, whom we wanted to burn in Hell, preferably for eternity. We wanted independence and freedom, except for the communists, who should all be sent to reeducation, preferably for life. We wanted benevolent leaders who represented the people, by which we meant us and not them, whoever they were. We wanted to live in a society of equality, although if we had to settle for owning more than our neighbor, that would be fine. We wanted a revolution that would overturn the revolution we had just lived through. In sum, we wanted to want for nothing!”
From that harrowing opening scene, The Committed goes on to tell the story of Vo Danh, a narrator torn inside; in essence, two men with two minds and two souls, but only one body. After enduring years in a “reeducation” camp, he is released and reintroduced into society in Paris, where he apparently dies, and it is from that vantage point that he tells us his story of existential ambivalence, which might be confusing because of all the talk about governments and economic dogma, but is really mostly about not belonging, about having been brutally uprooted, made unable to access his own soul:
“Once, I would have taken offense. But after all I had suffered and seen, perhaps I actually was a crazy bastard. Perhaps that was just another name for a man with two faces and two minds. If so, at least I knew who I was, and that was more than could be said for most. The dual images of myself floating in his lenses reminded me that I was not one but two, not only me or moi but also, on occasion, we or us. We might have been two people in one body, two minds in one shell, but if this was a weakness, to be divided against oneself, it was also a strength, to be one’s own twin. We were not half of anything. As my mother had told me time and again, ‘You are twice of everything!’”
It’s a fitting reduction because it is also common immigrant theory, and theory is front and center in this book, its varied subtexts and plots pointing to the primary economic systems, to their theories, as shapers of a country, in this case, France, but also of the day-to-day life of its people, as in the regular person, so that now this person is a certain way, has certain qualities akin to those of other nationals like himself, that identify them as belonging to this or that nationality, and for that reason, clear-cut cause and effect, they are this way or that.
In the book, this is expressed with lots of “Eat too much, work too much, buy too much, read too little, think even less, and die in poverty and insecurity. No thank you. Don’t you see that’s how Americans take over the world?”
Or with “Within a corner of every French soul slouches an American, coughing quietly now and again to remind the Frenchman of their shared history, beginning with how the French helped the pitiful upstart Americans in their revolution against the English, only to find themselves needing the aid of these same Americans to rescue them twice in the World Wars.”
The Committed criticizes everyone with gusto and well-written wit, and there’s a clever musing for every main national persona and the economic theory that matches them, down to the “sleazy socialists and caviar communists.”
Of course, no amount of fictional intellectual criticism can avoid the real crux of why the characters in The Committed are where they are, which is nowhere:
“I had done my best to forget her until then, for her fate had been my greatest failure and my greatest shame, unless you count my own existence, which I had premised on answering the most important question of the twentieth century: WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
What is to be done about slavery?
What is to be done about colonialism?
What is to be done about occupation?
What is to be done about racial inequality?
What is to be done about class exploitation?
What is to be done about the decline of Western civilization?
What is to be done about the woman question and the male ego?
WHAT IS TO BE DONE ABOUT WHAT NEEDS DOING?”
But there is a third that is story here, and that third is so very good. Vo Danh still has to survive in Paris beyond thought, so he finds work for a dangerous thug, selling his drugs to intellectuals, including the communists he fake-abhors, but really only despises. All the while, he is a turncoat in his mind, a secret he works to keep from his best friend, Bon, a volatile character in a numbed body. Always at the edge of his thoughts after suffering a great loss, Bon lends a delicious tension to this story of immigrants trying to survive while searching for something close to honor around and inside themselves, loyalties unavoidably divided as their new home changes them, as they realize they have managed to survive, and are exposed to another reality beyond the economic system that has limited their life until then via a government, dictatorship or other system paying lip service to the ideal (communism, socialism, capitalism, other isms) while really only working to preserve itself, and its leaders in the only system a fascist ever liked for himself: self-directed capitalism.
But Vo will take it further than the dictators and the governments. Like a wannabe intellectual, he decides that if he cannot trust the system, any system, maybe he can rebel and have rebellion be the system he prostrates before:
“I could not claim to be a communist, but did that mean I could not be a revolutionary? Just because one revolution failed, was revolution itself dead? I hadn’t wanted to explain myself to my aunt. For her and for most self-proclaimed revolutionaries like me, ‘revolution’ was a magic word, like God, that foreclosed certain avenues of thinking. We believed in revolution, but what was it? Was it, in the end, really nothing? I wanted her to understand nothing, or help me understand nothing, because I did not yet fully understand what it meant, except that it was somehow revolutionary in its own way. For now, a revolutionary without a revolution, I had to create a new story. So, under the influence of a fine scotch and an equally fine hashish, a pairing that I recommend to all, I said, you might be surprised that I do not hate communists. Do I think they are mistaken? Yes. But their impulse toward revolution—well, that I can support.”
If you’re thinking that is one confused narrator, you’re right. But the questions serve to create a structure for the story, since as the narrator learns who he is and what, if anything, he truly believes while learning to safeguard his merchandise, recruit new customers, avoiding trouble with his violent but pragmatic boss, lying to his aunt and her intellectual salon boys—in essence testing the limits of every theory, while we are treated to the answers he seeks.
It is a book-long quest, with Vo seldom having the mental space for anything beyond living day to day unable to think away from these questions and the risks he is running, even to enjoy friendship, love, or even sex. Not to say there isn’t humor, if that’s what we want to call it. There is a lot of it in The Committed. It’s just very black, very graphic, very cynical humor, but humor that proves the place of comedy within the worst of tragedies.
Were Viet Thanh Nguyen a less adept writer, the exercise of reading The Committed would have been absolutely unbearable. Thankfully, that is not the case. He soars on the strength of language and passion for the ideas he works hard to depict here, so that if you loved The Sympathizer, and you don’t mind the insistent history lesson, you’ll be beside yourself with joy to read The Committed.