Colonial Subjects Forever

The Committed, by Viet Thanh Nguyen

“Why should I worry about deviating from the masses when I am also me and myself? Am I not a mass? Am I not already a collective? Do I not contain multitudes?” 

Waiting for the French to leave. Hanoi, 1954.

These are questions posed by the protagonist of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s new novel The Committed, the sequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning debut The Sympathizer. 

Just as he did as the eponymous narrator of the first book, this “crazy bastard” is perpetually asking questions of himself, like some postmodern Descartes who is, as the colloquial term puts it, “tripping”.

In this instance, however, he is not just having a conversation with himself. While most assuredly tripping, high on a combination of hashish and the white-powdered painkiller he calls the “remedy”, he is doing so in the presence of three other people: 

    • The Parisian woman of Vietnamese descent, to whom he addressed the coded reports he wrote as a communist spy in The Sympathizer; 
    • BFD, a self-important socialist politician; and
    • the Maoist PhD, an equally self-important – if somewhat more sophisticated – academic who, like BFD, endlessly reminds people of his participation in the movement synecdochically denoted as May ’68 and who, like BFD, has been intermittently sleeping with this woman, whom the narrator continues to refer to as his “aunt”, though they are not related. 

In light of the narrator’s audience, the questions he asks in this scene are more provocative than introspective. He does not want to indulge their Eurocentric left-wing fantasies, renouncing the sort of collective action they celebrate. He rejects the political in favour of the personal.  

This is why, even more than its predecessor, The Committed does not fit the traditional definition of the political novel. 

The genre’s usual subjects – diplomacy and deal-making, organising and demonstrating –  are like distant thunder from a storm that leaves the world dry. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine a novel more pertinent to contemporary political debates. 

Whereas The Sympathizer mostly takes place in the Southern California of the late 1970s, where its narrator spies on the emigré Vietnamese general he serves, The Committed is set in the Paris of the early 1980s, where this self-described “sympathiser”  resettles after being forced to participate in a doomed attempt to overthrow Vietnam’s communist government.

Because his cover was never blown, the narrator remains on good terms with his longtime friend Bon, who passionately hates all communists and has never suspected that both he and their other blood brother Man were working for the other side all along. As a consequence, though the narrator is no longer spying, he must continue to play the same role as before. 

This exquisite predicament provides the anxiety-provoking backdrop for a story in which both of these refugees find themselves pulled into the French underworld. 

Through a stroke of good fortune, the narrator becomes a drug dealer, relying on his American college education and his experience as a spy to develop an intellectual clientele that would otherwise have been difficult for the organised crime boss who employs him to reach. 

The narrator’s deep cover leads him on a picaresque journey in which hilarity and brutality go hand in hand. But only because we are always inside his head. If his tale were recorded objectively, without the benefit of his lively stream of consciousness, it would appear hopelessly grim. 

In this regard, The Committed reads a lot like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, perhaps the greatest of the many attempts to write the Great American Novel. 

Whereas Ellison’s nameless narrator presents the perspective of an African American, born and raised in the United States, yet still excluded from most of its blessings, Nguyen’s sympathiser shows us what it is like to be a colonised subject living amid his colonisers. 

What makes these novels political is their exploration of the divided consciousness that results from these scenarios. 

Although both narrators supposedly live in societies where liberty and equality are prized above all else, they are reminded over and over of the ways in which race holds them back. 

On the one hand, they are told to behave as much like white people as possible. On the other, they are informed that they can never be white enough. 

Like Ellison before him, Nguyen — I knew Viet while we were graduate students at UC-Berkeley in the 1990s and have remained in touch since — brilliantly exposes the hypocrisy that makes these mixed messages possible. 

In The Committed, he focuses particular attention on the dearly held conviction that anyone and everyone from territories that once belonged to France can become completely French, provided they are willing to relinquish everything that isn’t.

At one point, the narrator gets into a heated argument with BFD, who has become a customer for the illegal drugs he peddles. Following a visit to a brothel, BFD has been extolling the sexual virtues of the so-called Asiatic woman: “The only drawback to her, continued BFD, although it is also the source of her attraction, is that she is essentially unknowable”. 

Hearing the tired trope of inscrutability is more than the narrator can bear:

   And even if we are inscrutable, what does that make white people? Are white people ever referred to as inscrutable? No, you would say that a white person who is hard to read has a poker face, which has a positive connotation, a strategic one, suggesting a careful withholding of information, whereas we are just inscrutable because you white people believe that we always have something to hide.

   There you go again, with your “white people” this and your “white person” that. He snorted and waved a finger in my face. You’re nothing more than a communitarian.

   You, of all people, accuse me of being a communist?

   Communitarian, you idiot! Communitarian! A miserabilist! Someone who wallows in his misery, who cannot transcend the petty circumstances of his identity or his obsession with skin color, who cannot think outside of his little group, his community, and who can never ever just be human, much less universal!

This is the essence of the bind confronting the narrator and all the other people of colour he encounters in The Committed, from his Chinese crime boss to the Frantz Fanon-reading black man who serves as “eschatological muscle” at the so-aptly-named brothel, Heaven.

Universality is conceptualised as colourless. But colourlessness is conflated with whiteness. For people to be “of” colour, then, means that they fall short of the mark. 

From the perspective of white Europeans, the colour of their former colonial subjects implicitly represents a discolouring of the Enlightenment ideals embodied by the French Revolution. 

As both The Sympathizer and The Committed make abundantly clear, however, no matter how hard someone of colour tries to transcend it, the stain can never be entirely washed away. Because even if that person has managed to transcend race internally, they will constantly be reminded of their difference by the world outside. 

While the French approach to race may initially seem superior to the American one explored in The Sympathizer, since it insists that a colourless society is possible, the reality inevitably falls short of this goal.

Through a classic bait-and-switch operation, the promise of universality turns into a demand for whiteness that people of colour can never fully meet. This means that the political ideal that BFD exalts can never be wholly disentangled from the “petty circumstances” of identity. 

Despite the superficially anti-political thrust of the questions the narrator asks BFD and the Maoist PhD, they serve an expressly political function. 

By underscoring the degree to which the narrator perceives himself as fractured and multiple, to the point of being unstable, they encourage us to recognise the fissures and contradictions that define every character in the novel.

Politics is always already identity politics. But the identity it concerns is not something fixed and durable. Rather, what we call “identity” delimits a constant struggle for coherence and control. 

For a good portion of The Committed, this is illustrated by the narrator’s use of the first-person plural when talking about himself. Or, more precisely, his selves.

While people of colour feel this doubling acutely, as the remarkable American thinker W.E.B. DuBois and Fanon both explain beautifully, the idea that it only affects the marginalized and oppressed is a dangerous illusion.

This explains why BFD takes such strong offence when the narrator reminds him of his whiteness. Being conscious of the ways in which others perceive him as “coloured”, even if that colour is white, decouples his race from the universality to which his politics aspire.

In other words, his sense of individuality depends on the largely unconscious ideological mechanism that imagines what Jürgen Habermas calls the “unfinished project of Enlightenment” as a kind of stain removal.

Once it can no longer be taken for granted that transcending particularity has anything to do with colour, attempts to preserve white supremacy become harder to pass off as a defence of universal ideals.

Surely, that explains why the Génération identitaire movement and its equivalents in the United States copy the rhetoric and tactics of New Social Movements (NSMs). Instead of attacking the “communitarian” impulse, as BFD does in his conversation with the sympathiser, they embrace it.

That The Committed permits us to see all this clearly is a testament to Nguyen’s gift for literary transubstantiation. In his hands, abstract concepts that most of us struggle to comprehend are made flesh, inviting us to feel what we are not prepared to think.

This demonstrates why the political novel, as a literary category, must make room for works like The Committed, even if they do not concern the sort of politics covered in the news.  

This insight is hardly new. For decades now, the conviction that “the personal is political” has played a powerful role in shaping political activism. underpinning most of the New Social Movements which emerged in the wake of the 1960s. Even conservatives concluded long ago that it is crucial to contest the politics of culture.

This is the biggest difference between Viet Thanh Nguyen and his literary forebear. 

The self-consciously literary solipsism of Invisible Man was exalted as a properly American response to the legacy of racism, contrasting with the sort of self-consciously political naturalism that betrayed the “foreign” influence of communism and, to a lesser extent, anarchism. 

Many critics praised Ralph Ellison for prioritising the individual over the community and a kind of existentialism over political activism. 

At the same time, Ellison was considered a sell-out by many on the left, for savagely satirising the Communist Party in his depiction of The Brotherhood when it was expedient to do so, right as Cold War hysteria about “reds” was peaking. 

Regardless of what he was actually trying to do with Invisible Man, the perception in much of white America was that he presented a safer, more respectable alternative to other African American writers with left-wing pasts, particularly Richard Wright, effectively repudiating collective action. 

Nguyen needs to be mindful of antipathy towards his work from the historically reactionary Vietnamese-American community. But he doesn’t need to worry too much about attacks from the American left, since even those with a Marxist background tend to recognise the need for a multicultural approach. 

In the United States, the defence of universalism has largely become a conservative cause. Nguyen is unlikely to be criticised for turning away from politics just because he doesn’t write about politicians.

Matters are rather different in France, however. As numerous controversies over the past two decades have demonstrated, the French investment in universalism is deeper and more widely distributed. 

Even at the height of anti-Islam hysteria in the post-9/11 United States, only fringe elements on the right suggested that Muslims should be prevented from wearing traditional religious garb. 

Nor was there as much antipathy towards immigrants speaking their native tongues, as was witnessed in France.

Indeed, part of the reason why Steve Bannon and his ilk have been concentrating attention on Europe and, more specifically, France is that they discern more fertile ground there for mounting a defence of “Western values”.

There is a paradoxical dimension to these exertions. On the one hand, authoritarian populists hope to weaponize a lingering investment in universalism – the sort BFD’s hostility towards communitarianism exemplifies – and use it to attack multiculturalism worldwide; on the other, they are using the logic of multiculturalism to advance a self-consciously communitarian vision of minority whiteness. 

While the fact that The Committed is set in the early 1980s distances the novel somewhat from the polarities of our post-9/11, socially mediated world, there can be no doubt that Nguyen was thinking of recent French history when he wrote it.

The Sympathizer does a brilliant job of exposing the disavowals and deceptions that have defined American imperialism, without diminishing the book’s entertainment value. The Committed accomplishes a similar feat for the legacy of French colonialism. 

Together, they demonstrate the continuing vitality of the novel as a way of getting readers to leave their comfort zone and see the world in new ways.

Because novels subordinate the points they make to the demands of storytelling, they are necessarily less consistent than an academic argument would be. But they are more valuable as a consequence. Particularly when one of their points is that we are all less consistent than we like to believe. 

Photograph courtesy of Manhai. Published under a Creative Commons license.