Six years after the publication of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Sympathizer,” Viet Thanh Nguyen, University of Southern California professor and historian, revisits his nameless narrator in his newest book, “The Committed.” Similar to his first novel, “The Committed” is a Shakespearean tragedy, an immigrant story and an espionage tale wrapped into one. But Nguyen outdoes himself in his newest novel, recasting the tragedy and trauma of colonization through the lens of the oppressed.
The first novel indulged the narrator’s astute cultural critiques as the transplanted spy observes American society. Known only as the Sympathizer, the narrator bubbled through vastly different areas of America: higher education institutions, Hollywood, immigrant neighborhoods. Through it all, the Sympathizer’s intersectional identities of spy and communist help frame his critiques and maintain suspense. In the second novel, instead of applying his keen insights to society, the Sympathizer takes a closer look at himself, evaluating the relationships and motivations of the character.
To complement his new focus, Nguyen switches continents. After the groundbreaking revelations of the first novel, the Sympathizer arrives on French shores emotionally and intellectually gutted. The characteristic communist-anti-communist split tearing the “man with two faces” apart no longer nags at the Sympathizer. “The Committed” explores a man divested of his two warring ideological allegiances. No longer a double agent beholden to contradicting, yet intersecting, codas, the Sympathizer begins to unravel his own internal conflicts and flaws (of which he has many). The Sympathizer is a tragic character, foremost a reactionary, drawn into external politics and conflicts, neutered by his intellectual indecision. In Paris, Nguyen fabricates a compelling tale of a man with a troubled (but improving) relationship with women and colonization.
The changed setting is not arbitrary. Before he even sets foot in Europe, the Sympathizer’s life had been molded by the West. The French colonized his home, educated him then left. Later, the Americans inflame a civil war, educate him and leave. A product of French foreign entanglements born to a devout Vietnamese teen and a French priest, the Sympathizer had been “divided” since birth.
Such is the Sympathizer’s tragedy. The Sympathizer is a bastard, contaminated by Western education and forever troubled by the circumstances and characters involved in his birth. Despite being intellectually freed from the communist-anti-communist dialectic, he is still a man with deep-seated insecurities, an unshakable shame and a feeling of transcending sorrow.
Sometimes, Nguyen can get caught up in big, dramatic cultural theses and grandiose statements. Nguyen made his name from accurately distilling the essence of a conflict or nation more clearly and accurately than his peers. However, the Sympathizer’s cultural proclamations can be at best startlingly insightful and at worst, a palatable broad stroke. But Nguyen’s imagery and confidence create a compelling reverie where any observational missteps get quickly forgotten in favor of a new, incisive passage.
“The Committed” and its predecessors would be a mainstay on high school reading lists if not for the colorful vulgarity. One of the Sympathizer’s favorite topics is non-oblique, phallic images. But unlike other novels, the dick jokes actually enhance the story. In “The Committed,” Nguyen devotes several passages to French landmarks: “If the Eiffel Tower was just a Gallic erection thrusting forth from the supine French body shooting off bursts of clouds. … Was the French empire simply exposing itself for all to see?” The offhand comparison reinforces for the Sympathizer that the world he occupies is one created for men. The realization only serves to depress the Sympathizer as he becomes more keenly aware of the world beyond the inside of his own head.
In “The Sympathizer,” Nguyen threaded together a novel comparable to Kafka, exploring the consequences of colonization and shouldering the absurd. The Sympathizer mourns and fruitlessly laments the continuous churn of history, of rebellion, of purges and of rebirth. But he never assumes a moral high ground. Just like nations, families and friends, the Sympathizer is shaped by his experiences; they are part of him, and it would be too simple to assume he could so easily extricate himself by moralizing.
The Sympathizer’s observations trap the character into a perpetual reactionary state. The Sympathizer is too cerebral and myopic to disentangle himself from history’s crushing weight. The man’s big picture, abstract thinking renders him useless against the challenges of everyday life.
In “The Committed,” Nguyen brings a sharp, savvy balance of intellectual questioning and suspense. His tendency to eloquently break down and analyze cultural exchanges and sharply identify the scars of colonialism and materialism makes “The Committed” an easy award season pick.
Books Beat Editor Elizabeth Yoon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.