SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
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.
VIET THANH NGUYEN: (Reading) Strangers to one another before we clamber to board our ark, we were now more intimate than lovers - wallowing in our own waste, our faces green, our skin blistered by salt and baked into the same shade by the sun. Most of us had fled our motherland because the communists in charge had labeled us puppets or pseudo-pacificists or bourgeois nationalists or decadent reactionaries or intellectuals of the false conscience or because we were related to one of these. There was also a fortune-teller, a geomancer, a monk, the priest and at least one prostitute whose Chinese neighbors spat on her and said, why is this whore with us? Even among the unwanted, they were unwanted.
SIMON: Viet Thanh Nguyen, who won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for his previous novel "The Sympathizer," a Guggenheim and a MacArthur Fellow who also teaches at the University of Southern California, joins us now from Pasadena. Thanks so much for being with us.
NGUYEN: It's a pleasure to be here, Scott.
SIMON: What a startling beginning among this group of people. And you say that those onboard wanted a revolution that would overturn the revolution (laughter) we just lived through. Help us understand that both in your novel and in your own life.
NGUYEN: Well, I think both "The Sympathizer" and "The Committed" are novels about history, about politics, about war, about revolutions. 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. And so, you know, 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 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.
SIMON: I never see a name on your narrator. Did I miss something?
NGUYEN: 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 his - you know, he has a lot of problems with his own identity. But also, he's an everyman.
SIMON: He winds up in Paris, not the one you usually see in films. Why did you set the novel in this time and place?
NGUYEN: Well, No. 1, I mean, 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 rid of. But nevertheless, I love the romantic Paris that you just mentioned. 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 Indo-China.
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.
SIMON: Yeah. I don't want to give too much away, but he winds up in the drug world with the help of an aunt (laughter). Help us understand how he gets drawn into that world and how he sees that as a ticket to what?
NGUYEN: Well, when he goes to Paris, he lives in both the high world and the low worlds. So the high world is his aunt who is this editor. She hangs out with other 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.
SIMON: Your narrator has a kind of Gandhian moment of lucidity at the end where he shows nonviolence might detoxify us.
NGUYEN: The seduction of anti-colonial 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 entire life. Is violence the only way to imagine the act of decolonization and of detoxifying ourself from foreign influences? And 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?
SIMON: Is your narrator still with you?
NGUYEN: Oh, yes.
SIMON: You've been with him a long time now.
NGUYEN: 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, you know, 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. And he allows me to say things that I would find it difficult to say in person to other people, you know, because some of the things he says are (laughter) kind of obnoxious or kind of...
NGUYEN: ...Very critical. They might disrupt a nice, casual cocktail party conversation. And I'm also an academic. And if I were to say many of the same things I say in "The Committed," I'd have to, like...
NGUYEN: ...Have extensive footnotes to prove my point.
SIMON: You'd be called out for sure, right?
NGUYEN: Yeah, absolutely. But in the novel, I can get away with it, I hope. You know, and so, you know, people can read it and be provoked or be entertained. But they don't need footnotes in order to get what I'm saying.
SIMON: Viet Thanh Nguyen's new novel "The Committed," successor to his Pulitzer Prize winner "The Sympathizer." Thanks so much for being with us.
NGUYEN: Thanks so much for having me, Scott.
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