Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Big Red Book

“While the best situation for an anti-imperialist was to live in an imperial country where one could benefit from imperialism while righteously opposed to it, as happened quite often in the United States, the French had the second-best situation, being anti-imperialist in a formerly imperialist country.”

– Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Committed

How humiliating! How ignominious! First, the Vietnamese had the gall to defeat the U.S. on the battlefield, and then they had the grit to outsmart U.S. diplomats around the negotiating table. Now, along comes a Vietnamese-born American novelist who makes many of the U.S. authors who tackled the war on the printed page look like novices just learning the English language. Viet Thanh Nguyen is the name of the novelist with the balls, as he himself would say, to write not one but two spectacular novels that explore “the American War,” as the Vietnamese call it, and its aftermath. The Sympathizer and The Committed are the titles of Nguyen’s Big Red Books that waltz, tango and jitter bug with capitalism, colonialism, national liberation struggles, as we called them back in the day, and with communism and anti-communism.

In chapter one of The Sympathizer, the narrator drops the names of Karl Marx, V. I. Lenin, Chairman Mao, Ho Chi Minh, and mentions the Little Red Book and The Communist Manifesto. In chapter one of The Committed, he explains that he was “a communist spy inserted into the shabby ranks of the exiled South Vietnamese army” and that he sent “encoded messages about the machinations of some elements of this army who hoped to take back our homeland from communist rule.” Communism and anti-communism run like a river of blood through both novels, which are published by Grove, and available in bookstores and public libraries everywhere. Oddly enough, most reviewers in major U.S. newspapers have either ignored Nguyen’s exploration of communism and its foe, anti-communism, or didn’t see it at all. Perhaps communism is still too hot a topic to handle even in a review of a book.

Anti-war protesters who once poured into the streets of New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, as well as other cities and towns all over the nation—and chanted “Ho Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win”—would benefit greatly from reading these mind-boggling, mind altering books. Even demonstrators who heeded the call of the pacifist-leaning National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, (better known as “the Mobe”) will likely find Nguyen’s mythic works of fiction nearly as Rabelaisian as François Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, as Melvillian as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and as Joycean as James Joyce’s Ulysses.

The Sympathizer was published in 2015 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016. The following year, Nguyen was awarded a MacArthur and a Guggenheim. Born in Vietnam in 1971, he came to the U.S. with his family in 1975, after the liberation (also known as the fall) of Saigon. The Committed was published this year and features the same irascible anti-hero as The Sympathizer. He has a French father and a Vietnamese mother and has a habit of looking at everything and everyone from two different sides. Also, he takes on several different identities including “anarchist.”

It’s not necessary to start with The SympathizerThe Committed stands on its own two feet. Still, in some ways it makes sense to begin with the first novel. After all, it offers a nifty introduction to the narrator’s rather cynical perspective and his appreciation of dualities. The Sympathizer also shows how deeply ingrained his penchant for symbols. At one point, when he’s attracted to a woman’s breasts, he explains, “The Chinese might have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage.“ He goes on to say that to cleave has a “double meaning” : “to cut apart and to put together.” He adds that breasts are “two separate entities with one identity.”

In The Sympathizer, Nguyen dissects American Coca Cola culture. He also lampoons Americans who “pretend they are eternally innocent no matter how many times they lose their innocence.” In The Committed, he explores the brutalities behind the veneer of the culture of France. “Everything sounded better in French,” the narrator explains, “including rape, murder, and pillage!” He describes the baguette as the “symbol of France and hence the symbol of French colonization!” Nearly everything he encounters, triggers his reflections about empire, invasion, occupation and liberation.

It’s a delight to read Nguyen’s playfulness with language, which seems to have a life of its own and that teaches him a lexicon to navigate an underworld of sex, lies, betrayals and the ideals that lure men and women into the ranks of revolution and capitalism.

“Make love, not war,” might be the Sixties slogan that calls to the narrator more loudly and more passionately than any other. “Slogans were my turn-on and my political convictions were my most erogenous zone,” the narrator and main character exclaims.  Indeed, he pumps out slogans as fast as a Colt 6920 and hits the bullseye again and again. So, up against the wall, anti-imperialist mother fuckers. Put on your flak jackets and wade into steamy, slimy Paris, France, the surreal setting for The Committed, where pimps, prostitutes and drug pushers collude, collide and clash.

Nguyen borrows most of the clichés of pulp fiction, including the femme fatale, the fall guy and the fanatical wheeler dealer. He blows them up and lodges them in a drama that veers from farce to agitprop and romance. The big attraction is the author’s own intellectual pyrotechnics which rarely slow down, get lost in the nuances of the plot or in the unraveling of the characters who have cartoon-like names such as Grumpy, Shorty, Bon, Man, Boss, Mona Lisa, the Maoist Ph.D., BFD, and who are little more than scarecrows who enable the author to expound on Marx, Gramsci, Fanon and Mao.

Nguyen argues with most of the major theorists and pamphleteers in the pantheon of the Left. When a man with an AK-47 points it at the narrator, he exclaims, “Mao said that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, but you could not imagine anything growing from this kind of barrel.”

Revolutionary violence of the sort espoused by Mao and Fanon, and endorsed by Sartre, gives the narrator fits. Do the ends justify the means? He wonders. Near the end of the book, he offers a sermon of sorts: “This, too, is the dialectic, to take the revolution seriously but not to take the revolutionaries seriously.” He adds, “the only revolution you can commit to is the one that lets you laugh and laugh and laugh.  Perhaps, Nguyen would endorse Abbie Hoffman’s “revolution for the hell of it.”

He certainly wrestles with many if not most of the moral and ethical dilemmas that have faced revolutionaries since the time of Robespierre, Danton, Marat and Charlotte Corday who made history during the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror that sent citizens to the guillotine.

“I was not short of opinions,” the narrator says and makes good on his word: “Shit was the secret of every society”; “fantasy is better than reality, which has syphilis;” and “the most meaningless symbol in the West is the wedding ring.” Nguyen is an author who wages continual cultural warfare.

Some of the best lines in The Committed belong to a woman who points a gun at the narrator and tells him, “You take us for granted. You assume we’ll cook your food, wash your dishes, launder your clothes, giggle at your dumb jokes, swoon at your poetry or love songs that you love to write until the day you marry us, when you’ll never write us another poem or love song again, since you’ll be writing them to your girlfriends.”

The narrator in the second book is more than a bit insane and ought to be committed to a mental institution. But his madness enables him to see through hypocrisies and illusions. The Committed is a tour de force. It made me think of The God that Failed (1949), a collection of essays by former communists about why they could no longer believe. Andre Gide, Richard Wright, Arthur Koestler and Ignazio Silone contributed essays.

Nguyen never was a communist and isn’t an anti-communist in the way that Koestler and company were, though he’s wary of ideologies and revolutionary rhetoric. He seems to want to keep the faith in revolution, but he has seen too much to make him a true believer. “The only real mystery,” he writes, “is which part of us—our humanity or our inhumanity—will triumph in the human species’ perpetual game of Russian roulette with itself.” If you’ve solved the real mystery, call Nguyen who lives in Southern California soaking up the rays of the American Dream. Please clue him in. If you’re like me and are still wondering which way humanity will turn, jump head first into The Sympathizer and then its sequel, The Committed, and test your own endurance for the workings of the almighty dialectic.


Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.