PARIS IN THE EARLY 1980s: ’68 is in the rear-view and the soixante-huitards are running the show. Mitterrand is president; the welfare state is being expanded. Meanwhile, France’s former colonial subjects are existing in a state of perpetual subalternity, destined to prepare the takeout food and deliver the drugs of their white counterparts.
This is the reality that the memorable unnamed narrator of The Sympathizer steps into at the start of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s new novel. A refugee several times over, he’s fleeing both Vietnam, where he was brutally tortured by his own allies in a reeducation camp, and the United States, which has rejected him in its own fashion. With The Committed, the captain now sets his sights on the contradictions of another colonial empire. If you thought the US was a warmongering, racist hypocrite of epic proportions, just wait until you hear about France!
Nguyen is a perceptive, scathing, and genuinely funny writer, qualities which suffused The Sympathizer and are somewhat more unevenly on display here. Other artists (Marie NDiaye, Michael Haneke, Kamel Daoud) who have explored the long and brutal legacy of the French Empire have done it more subtly and to more devastating effect. In comparison, the captain’s observations as he arrives to his new place of refuge feel, well, American: obvious and somewhat oversimplified. There are near-constant comparisons between the two countries’ ways of doing colonialism. I felt a little like I was reading Adam Gopnik if he’d been sent to a reeducation camp and forced to mainline Fanon.
What these observations are not, though, is sanitized or sentimental. There are no rose-colored glasses to be found here: the captain’s Paris is the Paris of pervasive dog shit, filthy bistros, pigeons, drunks, casual police brutality, and the périphérie. Forced to clean toilets at “the worst Asian restaurant in Paris,” he takes to selling drugs, disguising himself as a Japanese tourist to bypass suspicion as he goes to visit his clients. It works — on the street, the cops look right past him, their attentions focused on Black and Arab immigrants instead. Nguyen accurately and convincingly depicts a city that both leans on and marginalizes its immigrant and refugee populations. He also illustrates what the contours of that city might feel like to someone who is unwanted in the uncanny way that Parisians make any outsider feel unwanted, but also unwanted because he is Vietnamese, a refugee, a “boat person,” as one of the supposedly liberal friends of his aunt reminds him.
Over the course of the novel, the narrator’s already divided consciousness splinters further. Here more commonly referred to as “Crazy Bastard,” he’s haunted by visions of people more ideologically committed than he: the two men he killed in Los Angeles; Bon, still living, who hates communists with such a fervor that he will not hesitate to kill his own best friend; and the communist agent who was gang-raped as he watched and did nothing to stop it, in what remains the most nauseating depiction of sexual violence that I have read. Wracked by guilt, our narrator tries to atone for these sins by doing things like reading Julia Kristeva, performing cunnilingus, and saving the life of a rival drug dealer, which mostly feel like embarrassingly insufficient acts of restitution. But he is also cracking up, the controlled interplay between his “two selves” that Nguyen explored in The Sympathizer collapsing and dissolving.
The insistence on cycling between pronouns to depict this disintegration often feels more like a gimmick than a convincing literary device. Still, Crazy Bastard remains a fascinating narrator: mordant, impotent but lascivious, filled with shame and rancor, attuned to absurdity, and prone to long bouts of philosophical rumination. He spends much of this novel in pursuit of oblivion, which he courts via dope, cognac, the cheeky use of an alias, “Vô Danh,” which means “anonymous” in Vietnamese, the mindless comforts of a high-class sanatorium, and an extended torture session that nearly delivers him. Though The Sympathizer planted the seeds for this nihilism, that novel ended on a surprising note of hope. The death drive has clearly won out here. The novel’s epigraph is “Nothing’s more real than nothing,” a line from the Franco-Cambodian filmmaker and Killing Fields survivor Rithy Panh, and repetitions on that theme abound.
Then there are the supporting players: a lawyer who defends war criminals and sleeps with the narrator’s “aunt,” to his confusion and titillation; a Senegalese bouncer obsessed with Aimé Césaire; a troupe of diminutive and fiendishly scatological sidekicks called the “seven dwarves”; a bourgeois socialist politician, and someone described simply as “the Maoist PhD.” I can’t quite make up my mind about these characters. No matter how richly drawn, most of them remain types, designed to say things about power, war, race, gender, and colonialism, or merely to provide comic relief. As the novel progresses, the socialist politician reveals himself to be a virulent racist rather than the initially assumed run-of-the-mill paternalist; otherwise, there is little in the way of meaningful character development.
But Nguyen is also articulating a perverse truth here about the corrosive effect of nation-states, political ideology, and imperialism on the individual. In a world where colonial empires have manufactured and enshrined racial difference, people are never really just people. At one point, the narrator tries to give a lecture to a pair of Algerian drug dealers about banding together to fight against their common colonial overlord and ends up barely escaping with his life. “I’m sorry … I don’t know any racial slurs for you,” Crazy Bastard politely tells one of them later.
Nguyen is a maximalist par excellence, and the furious pace of this novel rarely lets up. The Committed includes one seven-page sentence that begins with the narrator getting beaten up in a park and ends with him trying heroin, and a scene in which a Corsican business associate of his waxes philosophic while cycling through various positions of the Kama Sutra. We move from torture session to brothel and back again. The narrator is often sobbing. There is an orgy involving cartoonishly racist costumes (a funny riff on the libidinal power of race) and a truly disgusting series of interludes revolving around a clogged toilet. Nguyen relishes in articulating the essential scumminess of humans of all stripes, and he has a particular knack for revealing just how pathetic and vile our supposed masters of the universe are. No stone revealing human filth is left unturned.
There is almost no respite from this, and thus almost no room for the reader to feel the full weight of the horror that underlies this world — one where ideological allegiances cleave the oldest and dearest of friendships, and the children of colonized nations fight to the death for a drug route while their actual oppressors stay comfortably high, shielded from the violence their indulgences have produced. That may be the real nihilistic point that this novel is making: that centuries of colonial pillage and subjugation have created a world in which solidarity does not and cannot exist. I’m not sure if I agree, but the point hits home regardless.
The moments of pause, when they do come, testify powerfully to this reverberating violence, and to Nguyen’s considerable skills as a novelist. I was struck by a scene where the narrator wakes up at a brothel to encounter Madeleine, the Cambodian sex worker assigned him, distraught over a newspaper headline exposing mass graves in her home country. He is surprised to find that she blames him for the news, or at least what he represents: Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978 and occupied the country for a decade, though the Vietnamese are not responsible for this particular atrocity.
The night before, Madeleine was all artifice, perfectly playing the role of doting, hyperfeminine mistress. Now, in the cold light of morning, she is revealed: alone and far from home, surviving on what she can, and every bit as haunted as the narrator. He tells her goodbye, but she’s closed her eyes against him. Coffee and a hashish cigarette serve as Madeleine’s madeleine, transporting her back into a past that will never exist again. “[S]he was undoubtedly watching a movie only she could see,” the narrator thinks, “the rickety reel of memories in which everyone she knew was still alive.”