Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses his new novel, “The Committed,” the follow-up to his Pulitzer-winning “The Sympathizer,” and the second entry in a planned trilogy. It brings Nguyen’s storytelling further into the philosophy of refugees, feminism, communism, anti-communism and more—the terror of both the American war in Vietnam and the French presence in Vietnam, along with the Vietnamese presence in America andFrance. This is duality enacted as a writing method; this is a union between theory and fiction. A novel of ideas and politics and history and theory, but also a crime novel. A novel you’re not born knowing how to read, and you might have to reread it, this is exciting contemporary literature.
I may no longer be a spy or a sleeper, but I am most definitely a spook. How can I not be, with two holes in my head from which leaks the black ink in which I am writing these words. What a peculiar condition, being dead yet penning these lines in my little room in Paradise. This must make me a ghostwriter, and as such, it is a simple, if spooky, matter to dip my pen into the ink flowing from my twin holes, one drilled by myself, the other by Bon, my best friend and blood brother. Put your gun down, Bon. You can only kill me once.
Or maybe not. I am also still a man of two faces and two minds, one of which might perhaps yet still be intact. With two minds, I am able to see any issue from both sides, and while I once flattered myself that this was a talent, now I understand it to be a curse. What was a man with two minds except a mutant? Perhaps even a monster. Yes, I admit it! I am not just one but two. Not just I but you. Not just me but we.
You ask me what we should be called, having been nameless for so long. I hesitate to give you a straight answer, as that has never been my habit. I am a man of bad habits, and every time I have been broken of one—never having given up such a thing willingly—I have always gone back to it, whimpering and dewy-eyed.
Take these words, for example. I am writing them, and writing is the worst of habits. While most people squeeze what they can from their lives, suffering for their paychecks, absorbing vitamin D as they enjoy the sunshine, hunting for another member of the species with whom to procreate or just to rut, and refusing to think about death, I pass my time with pen and paper in my corner of Paradise, growing ever whiter and thinner, frustration steaming from my head, the sweat of sorrow sticking to me.
I could tell you the name I have in my passport, VO DANH. I assumed this name in anticipation of coming here to Paris, or, as our French masters taught us to call it, the City of Light. We, Bon and I, arrived in the airport at night on a flight from Jakarta. Stepping out of the airplane, we were gripped by a sense of relief, for we had reached asylum, the fever dream of all refugees, especially those rendered refugees not just once or twice but three times: 1954, nine years after I was born; 1975, when I was young and reasonably handsome; and 1979, just two years ago. Was the third time the charm, as the Americans liked to say? Bon sighed before he pulled his airline-provided sleeping mask over his eyes. Let’s just hope France is better than America.
That hope was ill-advised if one judged countries by their border officials. The one who inspected my passport wore the blank mask of all security guards as he studied my photograph and then me. His pale face seemed displeased that someone had granted me access to his beloved country, this man who lacked both an upper lip and a mustache to disguise his lack. You’re Vietnamese, this white man said, the first words ever uttered to me on visiting my father’s homeland for the first time.
Yes! I am Vo Danh! Along with my best French accent, I gave the border policeman my most fawning smile, ingratiating to the point of being grating. But my father is French. Maybe I am also French?
His bureaucratic brain processed this statement, and when he finally smiled, I thought, Ah! I have made my first joke in French! But what he said was: No . . . you . . . are . . . definitely . . . not . . . French. Not . . . with . . . a . . . name . . . like . . . this. Then he stamped my passport with my date of entry, 18/07/81, and flicked it across the counter, already looking over my shoulder at the next supplicant.
I met Bon on the other side of passport control. We had at last stepped foot on la Gaule, as my father had taught me to call France in his parish school. It was fitting, then, that the airport was named after Charles de Gaulle, the greatest of great Frenchmen in recent memory. The hero who had liberated France from the Nazis while continuing to enslave us Vietnamese. Ah, contradiction! The perpetual body odor of humanity! No one was spared, not even the Americans or the Vietnamese, who bathed daily, or the French, who bathed less than daily. No matter our nationality, we all got used to the aroma of our own contradictions.
What’s wrong? he said. Are you crying again?
I’m not crying, I sobbed. I’m just so overcome to be home at last.
By now Bon was used to my unpredictable bursts of tears. He sighed and took me by the hand. In his other hand, he carried only one bag, a cheap cloth duffel, a gift of the United Nations. His bag was nowhere near as fashionable as my leather one, presented to me by my old mentor Claude when I graduated from Occidental College in Southern California. My old man gave me one just like it when I left Phillips Exeter and went to Yale, Claude had told me, his eyes misting. Although he was a CIA agent who saw interrogation and assassination as his trade, he could be sentimental about some things, such as our friendship and high-quality men’s furnishings. I held on to the leather bag for this same nostalgic reason. Even though it was not very large, the bag, like Bon’s, was not full. Like most refugees we barely had any material belongings, even if our bags were packed with dreams and fantasies, trauma and pain, sorrow and loss, and, of course, ghosts. Since ghosts were weightless, we could carry an infinite number of them.
Passing the baggage carousels, we were the only passengers not pulling suitcases or pushing trolleys burdened with luggage and touristic expectation. We were not tourists, or expatriates, or returnees, or diplomats, or businessmen, or any class of dignified traveler. No, we were refugees, and our experience in a time machine called an international jetliner was not enough to dispel the year we had languished in a reeducation camp or the two years we had passed in a refugee camp on an Indonesian island called Galang. The stainless steel and glass and tile and bright lighting of the airport disoriented us after the bamboo and thatch and mud and candles of the camps, and we walked slowly and haphazardly, bumping against other passengers as we sought the exit. Eventually we came to it and the doors slid open, and we emerged under the vast ceiling of the international arrivals area, where a crowd of expectant faces inspected us.
A woman called out my name. It was my aunt, or, to put it more accurately, the woman who I pretended was my aunt. During my years in the United States as a communist spy inserted into the shabby ranks of the exiled South Vietnamese army, I had written her periodic letters, ostensibly regarding my personal travails as a refugee, but really encoded with secret messages in invisible ink about the machinations of some elements of this army who hoped to take back our homeland from communist rule. We had used Richard Hedd’s Asian Communism and the Oriental Mode of Destruction as our common cipher, and it was her task to pass on my messages to Man, blood brother to me and to Bon. I greeted her with relief and trepidation, for she knew what Bon did not and could not ever know, that Man was a spy, as I had been. He was my handler, and if eventually he became my torturer in that reeducation camp, didn’t that suit me, a man with two minds? And if my aunt was not really my aunt, wasn’t that perfect for a man with two faces?
She was really Man’s aunt, and she looked exactly as she had described herself in her last letter: tall, thin, with jet-black hair. There ended the resemblance to what I had imagined of her: someone middle-aged with a back permanently bent from working as a seamstress, humbled by her devotion to the revolution. Instead, this woman’s closest relative was a cigarette, judging from the shape of her body and what she held in one hand. She exuded smoke and confidence, and with her aggressive high heels she equaled me in height, although she looked taller, given her slimness, her formfitting gray knit dress, and her hair styled into a peak, a uniform that she would wear every day. Although I knew she was likely in her fifties, she could have passed for someone in her late thirties, blessed as she was by both French style and a half share of Asian genes that rendered her ageless.
My God! She seized me by the shoulders and made kissing sounds as she touched first one cheek and then the other to mine in that charming French manner of greeting, which had never been extended to me by the French in my homeland, including my French father. You two need new clothes. And haircuts!
Yes, she was definitely French.
I introduced her to Bon in French, but he responded in Vietnamese. He had a lycée education, like me, but he hated the French and was here only for my sake. It was true that the French had given him a scholarship, but he had otherwise never benefitted from them in any way, except for traveling on the roads that they had designed, which were hard to be grateful for given that the slave labor of peasants like Bon’s family had built them. My aunt switched to Vietnamese as she led us to the taxi queue, inquiring about our travels and our travails in the purest, most classical version of our language, spoken by Hanoi’s intellectuals. Bon was silent. His own dialect blended the rural north, where our families originated from, and the rural south outside of Saigon. His parents had settled there after our Catholic exodus from the north in ’54, the first of our three refugee experiences. It was either shame for his dialect that kept him quiet or, more likely, seething rage. Anything from Hanoi might be communist, and anything that might be communist was undoubtedly communist, at least to someone as maniacally anticommunist as he was. He wasn’t even thankful for the only gift our communist captors ever gave him, the lesson that what does not kill you makes you stronger. That must mean Bon and I were now supermen.
What do you do? he finally said once we were in the taxi, my aunt between us in the back seat.
My aunt looked at me with great reproach and said, I see my nephew has said nothing about me. I’m an editor.
Editor? I almost said it out loud but stopped myself, for I was supposed to know who my aunt was. In seeking a sponsor for our departure from the refugee camp, I had written to her—not in code this time—because she was the only one I knew who was not an American. She would likely inform Man of my arrival, but I preferred that certainty over returning to America, where I had committed crimes of which I had never been convicted but of which I was not proud.
She named a publishing house I had not heard of. I make my living in books, she said. Mostly fiction and philosophy.
The noise in Bon’s throat indicated how he was not the kind that read, except for the army field manual, tabloid newspapers, and the notes that I stuck on the refrigerator door. He would have been more comfortable with my aunt if she were actually a seamstress, and I was thankful that I had told Bon nothing about her.
I want to hear about everything you’ve been through, my aunt said. The reeducation and then the refugee camp. You are the first ones I’ve met who went through reeducation!
Perhaps not tonight, dear aunt, I said. I did not tell her of the confession I had written under great duress in reeducation, hidden in my leather duffel’s false bottom, along with a disintegrating copy of Hedd’s book, its pages yellowing. I was not even sure why I bothered to hide my confession, for the last person who should read it, Bon, showed no interest in its existence at all. Like me, he had been tortured into writing his own confession many times in the reeducation camp; unlike me, he did not know that it was Man, his blood brother, who was the commissar of the camp. How could he, when the commissar did not have a face? What Bon did know, he said, was that a confession extracted under torture was nothing but lies. Like most people, he believed that lies, no matter how often you told them, never became truth. Like my father, the priest, I was the kind who believed quite the opposite.
Copyright © 2021 by Viet Thanh Nguyen