Viet Thanh Nguyen's new novel, The Committed, is set in 1980s Paris, but it opens on a small boat in the open seas — crammed with people escaping their homeland. It's a follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathizer, which told the story of a communist double agent just after the Vietnam War.
"The Sympathizer and The Committed are novels about history, about politics, about war, about revolutions," Nguyen says. "So they're very serious novels, but at the same time, I wanted to make them entertaining — and also as funny as I could possibly make them — given the context of all the brutality that we're witnessing."
On exploring all sides of a revolution
Looking at a revolution from a distance, I think what we see is that there is a lot of absurdity and hypocrisy as much as there is a lot of sincerity and passion as well. So The Committed really tries to show us all sides of these revolutions, and in particular, it focuses on someone who was a Communist revolutionary in The Sympathizer and then became disabused of that revolution, lost his illusions, but never gave up the dream of revolution itself — that "the committed" were committed to that task. And so in The Committed, the sequel, he continues his quest for a revolution.
On why his narrator doesn't have a name
Well, he's both nameless and has many names all at the same time. In The Sympathizer he was called "the captain." In this book, he goes by a pseudonym, Vo Danh, which, the joke is, means nameless or anonymous in Vietnamese. So his namelessness is a sign of ... he has a lot of problems with his own identity, but also he's an everyman.
On why he set the story in Paris
I was born in Vietnam. My parents were actually living during the time of French colonization. So basically, I'm a colonized person. I have a colonized consciousness that I try to get get rid of. But nevertheless, I love the romantic Paris. ... I love baguettes, all that good stuff.
But I've also seen the other side of Paris, the immigrant side of Paris. And I think I'm fairly aware of some of the problems that the French have had dealing with their colonial past, both in Algeria but particularly in so-called Indochina.
And so I wanted to write a novel about this other Paris, this other France that's wrestling with a parallel set of contradictions that we, in the United States hopefully would recognize from our own history. And I wanted it to be set in a Paris that was not the tourist Paris or the romantic Paris. And so The Committed is a novel about French ideas and French Revolution and French colonialism, but it's also a crime thriller set in these immigrant neighborhoods.
On how he gets drawn into the drug world
When he goes to Paris, he lives in both the high world and the low world. So the high world is his aunt, who is this editor. She hangs out with all the French leftists and French intellectuals. They're ripe for satire, so part of the novel is a satire about the French left. But turns out that these folks like their hashish as much as anybody else. And our narrator, you know, has to get a job. So he hooks up with a ethnic Chinese crime boss and he says, well, what if I try to corner the market here on hashish for the intellectuals? And that's what unfolds, basically.
On his narrator's statement that "nonviolence might detoxify us"
The seduction of anticolonial nationalist revolutions has been based partly on this idea that violence can liberate. You know, the colonized have been subjugated through violence, they've been emasculated through violence, they've lost their independence through violence. And so, through violence, they can reclaim those identities, those nationalisms. And that's been something I've wrestled with my my entire life: Is violence the only way to imagine the act of decolonization and detoxifying ourselves from foreign influences?
So "the sympathizer," the narrator of these two novels, has struggled, too, with this his entire life — in a much more extreme fashion than I am — having been directly subject to violence, having been the perpetrator of violence. So then he has to get to this point where he has to think, can nonviolence be just as powerful and as dangerous and as self-dangerous of a force as violence itself can be?
On whether his narrator is still with him
Oh, yes. I've been with him a long time, and it's hard to leave him. And, you know, I think he is, in many ways, an alter ego. He is me, but much more extreme. Like in my life, I felt like a spy ... like a Vietnamese spying on Americans, like an American spying on Vietnamese. And in these novels, I just amplify that to a much greater and more dramatic and more interesting way through "the sympathizer."
He allows me to say things that I would find it difficult to say in person to other people. ... The things he says are kind of obnoxious or kind of very critical, they might disrupt, you know, a nice casual cocktail party conversation and almost unacademic. And if I were to say many of the same things I say in The Committed, I'd have to, like, have extensive footnotes to prove my point. But in the novel, I can get away with it — I hope. And so, you know, people can read it and be provoked, or be entertained, but they don't need footnotes in order to to get what I'm saying.
Peter Breslow and Melissa Gray produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.