Review of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (New York: Grove Press, 2015) and The Committed (New York: Grove Press, 2021).
By Roger Marheine
“Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom” (The Sympathizer)
“Nothing’s more real than nothing” (The Committed)
Nguyen’s Rise as a Political Writer
University of Southern California (USC) Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen’s rise to prominence in American literary and political culture roughly coincides with the publication of his first novel, The Sympathizer, which received the Pulitzer in 2016. His much acclaimed non-fiction work soon followed–Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Harvard U. Pr., 2016). Then came a work of short stories The Refugees (2018). In 2019, Nguyen edited a collection of essays by seventeen authors, The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. Finally, his sequel to The Sympathizer, entitled The Committed, was published in March, 2021.
In his “spare” time, the prolific Nguyen has become what he jokingly calls a “public intellectual.” His public talks show Nguyen as good-humored, self-deprecating, quick witted, and intellectually reflective.
Most recently, he has criticized and historicized the anti-Asian violence perpetrated by white supremacists. He has spoken on a full array of mainstream talk shows and also academic forums on racism, Asian and Asian-American experience, immigration, and the status of refugees. He insists that he be called a “refugee” and not an immigrant.
In a New York Times Op/Ed, “The Post-Trump Future of Literature” (December 22, 2020), Nguyen launched a critique against “liberal” and mostly white authors who have largely abandoned politics in their art. In it, he skewers hypocritical elites who espouse phony multiculturalism and a facile emphasis on diversity, the remnants of Obama’s failed reign. He writes:
That much of the literary world was willing to give Mr. Obama’s drone strikes and deportation policies a pass, partly because he was such a literary, empathetic president, indicates some of the hollowness of liberalism and multiculturalism. Empathy, their emotional signature, is perfectly compatible with killing people overseas — many of them innocent — and backing up a police and carceral system that disproportionately harms Black, Indigenous and other people of color and the poor. It turns out that a president can have a taste for both drone strikes and annual reading lists heavy on multicultural literature.
Clearly, Nguyen is using his current notoriety to lay down some heavy commentary. Good for him; there is much to consider in this most dynamic of intellectuals.
Nguyen’s non-fiction provides significant commentaries that reveal a serious reflection on US imperialist wars and genocide which his novels also address with an admirable heft and density. Most telling, however, is his claim that he can probe and reflect in fiction in ways that he cannot pursue in non-fiction.
In that regard his novels exhibit a formidable creativity and a richly achieved aesthetic , but they also reveal a profound political uncertainty and ideological ambiguity . In short, the novels reflect Nguyen’s flirtation with nihilism (1)
The Sympathizer (2015)
The Sympathizer is more experiential than its sequel and establishes the contradictory political terrain of Vietnam and its immediate aftermath. Both novels feature Nguyen’s unnamed narrator who states his dilemma on the first page: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces….also a man of two minds….I am simply able to see any issue from both sides”(1). In fact, he is a Communist Party member (thus more than a Communist sympathizer), and North Vietnamese agent assigned to spy on the South Vietnamese general staff, America’s puppet regime.
Ultimately, the narrator clarifies that the entire book is his “confession,” and we subsequently learn it is his “self-criticism” as part of his task in a North Vietnamese “re-education camp.” Yes, it is complicated, as Nguyen makes significant ideological demands of his readers.
The plots in both novels entail three Vietnamese “blood” brothers (they’ve sworn their allegiance as youths by cutting their hands and mixing their blood).
The narrator is the bastard son of a French priest who impregnated his teenage Vietnamese maid. The priest denies his patrimony, and the narrator is thus the offspring of the rape of Vietnam by the colonizer French, then the Americans. Rape becomes a metaphor throughout the book, and in the second half during a CIA interrogation a North Vietnamese woman is repeatedly raped. She finally states her name is Viet Nam.
Nguyen’s narrator is the author’s alter-ego who allows Nguyen to probe our historical moment’s ideological contradictions—ultimately Nguyen’s subject is communist revolution versus a corrupted and unjust capitalism. He does distance himself from his narrator’s musings. In a talk at Pasadena City College, Nguyen stressed he was nothing like his narrator who is a rogue and a rascal, a drunk and drug user, a womanizer, a liar, and a murderer; however, he is a truth seeker.
Bon is the narrator’s closest friend, but he is a rabid anti-communist whose father has been killed by the Vietcong; he is completely loyal to the narrator but does not know the narrator’s communist loyalties. The book begins with horrific scenes of South Vietnamese fleeing their country as the North Vietnamese army closes in on Saigon. Nguyen excels in depicting the chaos and corruption, the deal-making, and treacherous US government abandonment of so many. As an aide-de-camp to a South Vietnamese general, the narrator escapes with the general’s entourage. Bon also escapes but his wife and new-born child are killed, apparently by a North Vietnamese sniper. Bon’s pursuit of revenge defines him as a one-dimensional killer.
Man is a communist leader, and ultimately the commissar who will torture the narrator in the last sections of the book. His face has been burned off by a US napalm attack, and he embodies the suffering, but more importantly, the successful Vietnamese communist resistance. He is one side of the dialectic while Bon is the opposite side; they represent the contradiction felt by the narrator who sees “both sides.” Nguyen distrusts all political certainties. Is he attempting a “third way,” neither capitalist nor communist? It would appear so.
Blistering Satire and Deft Comic Touches
Nguyen’s most ironic and scathing broadsides target the hypocritical pontificators–aka professors, public intellectuals, and Hollywood filmmakers who demonstrate their willful ignorance or outright complicity with the US imperialist agenda.
In an early sequence, the narrator, while on staff at a California university, encounters Professor Richard Hedd; thus “Dick” Hedd is Nguyen’s implied joke. The professor provides the narrator with a list of racist, stereotypical differences between the “Occident” and the “Orient.” (2) While “married” to a much younger Asian woman, Professor Hedd quotes British imperialist Rudyard Kipling’s “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” Nguyen ridicules the whole “East as different” industry, the racist history of “Otherness.” Professor Hedd is also given credit for the famous utterance by US General William Westmoreland, who as his body counts totaled millions while losing the war, famously claimed, “The oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the westerner.”
The Committed features two French intellectuals, “BFD” and the “Maoist PH.D”, neither overtly named. It’s safe to assume that “BFD” is short for Big Fucking Deal, and the Maoist intellectual strangely does next to nothing but consume hashish from the narrator who toils away as a low-level drug distributor.
Nguyen knows full well the arrogance of the chattering class, whether staunchly imperialist (e.g. “Dick” Hedd) or nominally “communist” (BFD and the Maoist intellectual). He is perhaps evenings some scores with pompous windbags who obscure fundamental truths and sell themselves as authority figures.
Nguyen debunks Hollywood’s depiction of the Vietnam war, particularly Francis Ford Coppola’s ghastly caricature, Apocalypse Now loosely based on Coppola’s racist, sophomoric interpretation of Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. The Sympathizer explodes the heresies of an “auteur” (Coppola figure) who films bogus hyper exploitative scenes with no Vietnamese actors playing Vietnamese roles. These are all shining moments in Nguyen’s satirical fiction, both exquisite in their penetrating observation and spot on in their political clarity.
Encounter with Nihilism: the Grand Inquisitor
Despite much scathing satire that repeatedly finds the mark, Nguyen takes us down a much darker path toward nihilism. The Sympathizer’s most disturbing sections entail the “re-education,” in fact extended torture of the narrator by his “blood” brother, Man. The name, “Man,” is both a Vietnamese name and a reiteration of “man’s inhumanity to man.”
Nguyen’s Communist Commissar torture sequence introduces us to “KUBARK Counterintelligence, 1963,” (in fact the CIA torture manual) as a text that Man utilizes. Thus ironically, the narrator, who has mastered KUBARK’s techniques through his CIA handler, Claude, will fully grasp what is to be done with him. Why do we torture? Because the CIA taught us.
Man’s hideously burnt face (from a US napalm attack) certainly represents the countless victims of US war crimes. However, Man devolves into a grotesque caricature who eats “wood pigeon” (in fact, rat) and keeps a hideously deformed baby in a jar of formaldehyde on his desk (the deformity caused by an American chemical agent like Agent Orange). He will become the narrator’s Grand Inquisitor, a monster sadist who rebukes the narrator’s inaction while he observed the rape of the North Vietnamese woman in CIA custody, mentioned above. Man accuses him of “doing nothing.” The scene contrives an impossible choice for the narrator who in not exposing his own position as spy, has “allowed” the rape and ultimately, the murder of the North Vietnamese woman.
During the extended torture sequence, the narrator, under extreme duress utters Ho Chi Minh’s “Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.” Nguyen’s extraordinary irony transforms this revolutionary declaration into its opposite. Thus instead of the original meaning—the positive emphasis on historical struggle for a worthy revolutionary cause–the narrator in a manic, delirious state, shifts the interpretation. He emphasizes “Nothing” (i.e. nihilism) as a philosophical position is more important than fighting/dying for a progressive political cause.
Man, the most significant communist in the book, is no better than Claude the CIA agent (who has overseen the rape and murder of the North Vietnamese woman). Nguyen’s cynicism with progressive causes, particularly communism shows him ultimately to be in the “totalitarianism” camp that effectively equates communism with fascism, their apparent ideological differences but a superficiality leading to the same cruel ends.
Nguyen–Master of Literary Allusion.
On the first page of The Sympathizer, Nguyen quotes the first line of T.S Eliot’s poem, “The Wasteland” (pub. 1922), that “April is the cruelest month.” For Eliot, April is “cruel” because it seems to offer rebirth and new life after the long winter, but in Eliot’s conservative vision, there is no rebirth , only the tantalizing illusion that will never come about. Nguyen suggests that any revolutionary agenda (e.g. communism) is also a cruel illusion that teases our fantasy, but will never materialize. Thus, humanity’s quest for an emancipatory project is tragically misguided.
Nguyen writes novels of ideas, and his influences are striking. He has often stated his admiration for Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the 1952 novel with an unnamed black narrator. Ellison’s character embodies the theme of race/racism as invisible to mainstream 1950s America. Nguyen named his son Ellison after the author. Ellison’s plot patterns are echoed in Nguyen’s as both authors allow their narrators to sample philosophies. Both narrators reject the Communist Party, Ellison’s overtly and Nguyen’s more subtly. Both characters undergo torture, both suffer severe disillusionment, and both emerge deflated—hollowed out by their experiences.
Also, there are striking parallels between Nguyen’s torture sequence and the third section of George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell, perhaps the most famous anti-communist author writing in English, depicts Big Brother’s enforcer O’Brien torturing Winston Smith for no apparent reason, other than sadism. Orwell’s extended torture sequence (the dreaded Room 101) leads to the total collapse of Winston Smith’s psyche when he betrays his lover, and declares, “I love Big Brother,” at the nihilistic conclusion.
The Sympathizer’s final passage offers considerable ambiguity. Nguyen’s narrator states of the Vietnamese in particular but also for a broader humanity: “Yet we are not cynical. Despite everything, in the face of nothing—we still consider ourselves revolutionary. We remain the most hopeful of creatures, a revolutionary in search of a revolution, although we will not dispute being called a dreamer doped by an illusion”(382).
Frankly, given the rest of the text, the denial of cynicism doesn’t ring true, as is seen at the outset of the sequel.
The Committed—Nguyen’s French Connection
The Committed opens with a quote from Rithy Panh, Cambodian survivor of the genocidal Khmer Rouge: “Nothing’s more real than nothing.” Thus, whatever ambiguity is served up on The Sympathizer’s last page, it’s done away with at the start of the sequel.
The narrator sums up his philosophical position early in the book: “I was not an enemy to communism, merely someone with a near-fatal weakness in being able to sympathize with communism’s actual enemies, including Americans. What reeducation [his ordeal of torture ordered by Man] taught me was that dedicated communists were like dedicated capitalists, incapable of nuance”(12). It’s safe to say the narrator speaks for Nguyen. Certainly, Nguyen values nuance as both novels profoundly demonstrate.
The Committed’s plot takes the narrator to France and to live with his “Aunt” who is a leader of the North Vietnamese Communist network in Paris. He has secretly corresponded with her during his time as a communist spy, as he dutifully reported on the South Vietnamese general. In an interview, Nguyen conceded The Sympathizer’s female characters were underdeveloped stereotypes. Thus, in the sequel, the “Aunt” takes on some value as a counterpoint to the narrator’s nihilism.
However, Nguyen portrays her as a jaded, hypocritical pseudo-leftist who consorts hedonistically with both BFD and the Maoist Intellectual. When the narrator becomes a drug dealer, she insists on her cut of his profits. Here Nguyen might have utilized the “Aunt” as something more than a privileged and debauched creature of decadence. After the first third of the book, her importance disappears, and most of the other female characters are prostitutes, working for gangsters. Nguyen decides against the portrayal of a fully developed female character with philosophical substance and personal depth.
By setting the sequel in France, Nguyen opens two avenues of inquiry. First, he launches an attack on French imperialism and French hypocrisy; recall his narrator’s father is a French priest. In an interview, Nguyen, half-jokingly, declared that his first book had offended communists, anti-communists, Vietnamese, Americans etc.; his second novel was to insult the French. His two weapons, Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism and Franz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks, stand tall in the anti-colonial canon. Both authors originate from the Caribbean island of Martinique, colonized by the French. Nguyen links French domination of Vietnam with Césaire’s deconstruction of colonialism and Fanon’s psychoanalytical probe of imperialist generated racism. These make-up the novel’s best moments, but while clearly admiring their intellectual contributions, Nguyen sees them only as a clarification of the historical problem, without a solution.
Second, the French setting allows Nguyen’s engagement with more conservative French authors. He conceded in an interview that Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night was an influence. Celine’s nihilism led him to aesthetic heights in his portrayal of a wounded World War I French soldier who deserts. However, Celine’s cynical and depressed protagonist never gets beyond his critique of hypocrisy and ignorance—for Celine, the human condition. Subsequently, Celine aligned with fascism and was imprisoned for his sympathies after World War II. While it cannot be claimed that Nguyen has fascist tendencies, his narrator does journey into the dark night of cynicism and despair.
What’s in a name?
In The Committed, the narrator will be given the ironic name of “Vo Danh” (“nameless” in Vietnamese). Even more importantly, he will be called “Camus” several times by a fellow gangster partly as a joke, but certainly Nguyen wants his readers to draw inferences.
Briefly, Albert Camus, is associated with French existentialism along with Jean Paul Sartre who is also named in the book. (3) Camus is perhaps most famous for his novel, The Plague, which saw the human endeavor as always up against something—a pandemic, fascism, etc. However, Camus stressed the absurd in his The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel. Thus, Sisyphus must endlessly (and pointlessly) push his rock up a hill daily, only to have it role down again. Camus’ rejection of progress, especially through struggle amounts to an elegant, philosophical polemic for giving up.
Nguyen’s narrator closely resembles Sisyphus, whose daily toils lead to sound and fury signifying nothing but hare-brained schemes, brutal encounters with other drug dealers, and ultimately sexual impotence. He jokingly wonders which is worse, that he is a drug dealer or a capitalist. Technically, he is not a capitalist because he works for a major dealer.
The character follows the “outsider” tradition, the existential anti-hero whose smaller crimes pale in comparison to greater crimes against humanity in a fundamentally criminal world. He exudes authenticity, so that while he has killed two mostly innocent men, he feels anxiety and guilt. Camus stressed the complete awareness of his “rebel” who has moral principles, but is not a revolutionary. He believes only in hopelessness yet continues on with the recognition that nothing can be done—the life of the absurd. This is Nguyen’s narrator as well, as he sums up his position:
Seeing the failures of both communism and anticommunism, I chose nothing, a synthesis that neither capitalists nor communists could understand. You may think I am being a nihilist, but you could not be more wrong. While nihilists thought life was meaningless and rejected all religious and moral principles, I still believe in principle (italics in original). I also believed that nothing was full of meaning—in short that nothing was actually something. Wasn’t that a kind of revolution in itself? (62)
The “outsider camp,” saw its heyday in the late 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, Richard Wright’s The Outsider (1953) condemns the certainty of causes (e.g. Marxism), even as he detested current capitalist power structures. The cluster of writers who authored The God that Failed established the disillusionment school (my term) that Nguyen aligns with. (4) For them the twentieth century emancipatory project (e.g. global revolutions) brought great expectations of a new era, yet they failed to live up to their promise; and subsequently there is only cynicism and despair.
The Committed’s conclusion places the narrator in an asylum where he has been “committed.” Puns and double-entendres abound in Nguyen’s linguistic odyssey, as does humor. There’s an old joke that nihilists feel so much better once they have given up all hope—they no longer need to feel guilty about the injustices of the world. However, Nguyen seems quite anxious; hopelessness does not bring resolution to his tension. His narrator quotes another absurdist, Eugene Ionesco: “God is dead, Marx is dead, and I don’t feel so well myself” (72).
The Committed’s final scene, obscured by the narrator’s loss of his mental faculties, shows an ominous foreboding—the narrator’s death by a CIA assassin.
Conclusion: What is to Be Done?
Nguyen peppers his text with references to Marx, Mao, Che, and of course Ho Chi Minh. Indeed, time and again, he asks Lenin’s great question: “What is to be done?” His short, simple answer is “nothing.”
Thus, what are we to make of this erudite, satirical engagement with nihilism and nothingness? Perhaps it’s unfair, but as a diatribe of despair, Nguyen’s work has been very well received by the American literary elite whose own inclinations lean toward nihilism. They are Camus’ “rebels” who commit to fashionable causes, while clinging to the doctrine of absurdity as they live very comfortable lives. Still, Nguyen is too honest to endorse hypocritical (neo) liberalism or a facile reformism; he shows a complete contempt for capitalism.
At the end of the day, Nguyen, like his narrator, is a divided between nihilism and a kind of liberal humanism, which amounts to an attempt at a third way between capitalism and communism. His fiction is an airing of his philosophically conflicted position while he continues his day job arguing for basic decency, speaking out against racism, and guiding his students as a USC professor.
Nguyen’s passionate works reflect deeply felt contradictions in his psyche. He harnesses an uncompromising anger at horrific injustices and the putrid decay of capitalism’s institutions. His art is a compelling snapshot of the horror. However, while Nguyen may not be married to nihilism, his fiction is certainly a flirtation, a dalliance, and an exploration of nihilism’s particular intellectual allure.
- Nihilism has a long history and usually emerges after a catastrophic political defeat, which destroys a particular era’s basic assumptions–its social and philosophical certainties. Its simplest definition is to have no hope, believe nothing has value, and reject all meaning (particularly grand narratives like Marxism). In the US, a kind of nihilism emerged among bourgeois intellectuals after World War I. S. Eliot declared humanity a wasteland, and Gertrude Stein coined the expression, the “Lost Generation.” These authors were “lost” because they could no longer honestly believe in capitalism’s potential for human fulfillment. Some, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, retreated to alcoholism and decadence, similar to authors of Berlin’s Weimer era. Some, like Ernest Hemmingway, sought a fully lived patriarchy with individual fulfillment rooted in hunting African game and bull fighting. However, they would not, because of their bourgeois sensibilities, recognize the revolutionary antidote to capitalism, nor could they join the communists except briefly during the United Front period and as dilettantes during the Spanish Civil War. Nguyen is from a later nihilistic cohort—those who are disenchanted with global revolution and its aftermath.
- The word “Orient” derives from Latin to mean “east” and was conceived by Europeans who saw themselves as “center.” The “Occident” also from Latin means “to fall” as in the sun falling or setting. Thus, Europeans sailing “west” meant to the Americas which would be called the “western hemisphere” and the Occident. Accordingly, Asia is “east” of Europe and thus the “Orient” was a geographical creation by Europeans. Subsequently, the “Orient” entailed Europe’s ethnically biased projections of “Otherness” onto Asian peoples who were viewed as fundamentally “different.” Thus General Westmoreland made his famous racist claim: “The oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the westerner.”
- For an excellent overview on “existentialism,” go to Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others (London: Other Press, 2017). Despite her frivolous title, Bakewell sorts out the progressive (Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir) from the reactionary side of existentialism (Camus and Heidegger).
- See The God that Failed: A Confession (1949), an anthology of authors who rejected communism, generally, and the Soviet Union in particular. They include Ignazio Silone, Arthur Koestler, Richard Wright, Andre Gide, Louis Fischer, and Stephen Spender.
–Roger Marheine taught English at Pasadena City College and is now retired. His interests include war culture and resistance literature.