Ink or blood? What’s the difference? Those questions are posed throughout Viet Thanh Nguyen’s latest novel of ideas.
In The Committed, the questions function like arteries circulating through the book, adding oxygen to a system of ideas from his previous Pulitzer-winning work, The Sympathizer.
While The Sympathizer injected a communist spy into the suburban wastelands of SoCal, skewering the American dream and every Western understanding of the Vietnam War, in The Committed we now find the same protagonist in the violent drug-addled underbelly of ’80s Paris. It’s a ferocious avant-garde mashup that simultaneously reads like a French-Vietnamese gangster story, a European political thriller and a postmodern philosophical debate on the merits of violence and revolution as legitimate responses to capitalism and empire.
“I wanted to write a sequel that would continue the adventures of The Sympathizer, but which would clearly make the case, I hope, that in fact, the larger project that I’m interested in is not just about the Vietnam War, and the Vietnam War is not just Vietnam, but the larger project is about colonialism and imperialism, global racism,” Nguyen told me. “And Vietnam is this one manifestation of that. And when the Americans came in, they basically took over the French colonial project, which Americans obviously would totally deny that they did.”
The Committed is set in France because the narrator is half French and half Vietnamese, yet upon returning to the land of his heritage, he descends into one crime-ridden quagmire after another, all while gloriously nefarious characters attack the central core of every European empire-building experiment throughout history. We get free improv riffs on Marx, Aimé Césaire and Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. Even the brothel thugs discuss postcolonial philosophy. Nguyen argues that revolutions are made not just by the philosophers and the intellectuals, but also by everyday people who take the ideas and run with them.
As a result, the book can’t be pigeonholed into a Vietnam War novel like The Sympathizer. The character arc is that of a deeply traumatized person trying to understand his own trauma and confront various political ideologies he finds important. He’s trying to figure out not only who he is, but who he is as a revolutionary.
So far, the European reviews of The Committed have revealed a more solid understanding of the book, especially the humorous dimensions. Maybe it’s due to an extra thousand years of failed empires. Plus, in France, unlike the US, one still finds a robust intellectual culture and the ability of the French to laugh at themselves, whereas the failures of American imperialism rarely lead to a comparable degree of self-reflection.
“The French reception has been very positive to the book,” Nguyen said. “I thought they might be offended, but they called the book funny. They got the humor. … They seemed to take it in good spirit.”
The concept of blood and ink goes way back in Nguyen’s life. After escaping San Jose over 30 years ago, he became a student at Berkeley and helped start one of the first Vietnamese arts organizations in the country. They called it Ink and Blood. Eventually the endeavor evolved into what’s now the Diasporic Vietnamese Artist Network.
Ink and blood then became vital to the narrator of The Sympathizer when he was forced to write his confession. His life was mired in blood, colonization, warfare and displacement. History is often written in blood anyway, right? In The Committed, we find him confessing again, although in a more traumatized state of mind, which makes him do more elaborate things with the format and structure of his confession, which in turn allowed Nguyen to further experiment with the format and structure of the novel.
“I think ‘play’ is the important word,” Nguyen said. “You could say experiment, but for me, writing the novel, part of what I wanted to do was just to give in to my own impulses of playfulness.”
Nguyen returns to the South Bay for a May 3 reading sponsored by SJSU’s Center for Literary Arts, where he will talk about the experience of growing up in downtown San Jose, which remains inseparable from the books he’s already written and the material he’s currently working on. For sure, blood and ink will be discussed.
CLA Presents: Viet Thanh Nguyen
Tues, 7pm, Free
SJSU Student Union Theatre