By Chet Yarbrough
By Viet Thanh Nguyen
Narrated by : Francois Chau
Viet Thanh Nguyen (American author, 2016 winner of Pulitzer prize for fiction.)
“The Committed” carries forward the life of three Vietnamese blood brothers introduced in “The Sympathizer”, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s earlier novel. Nguyen’s story begins during America’s Vietnam war.
In the beginning of “The Committed”, the main character, Vo Danh, arrives in Paris with his blood brother Bon. Their first night’s stay is with a communist sympathizer who is Vo Dahn’s aunt. Bon is incensed by the aunt’s support of communism. Bon’s job as a Vietnamese counterspy in America was to murder communist sympathizers. Bon wishes to leave immediately, but Vo Danh calms him down and they stay the night. However, Vo Danh continues to visit his aunt and for a time lives with her.
The main character of “The Committed” believes all social beliefs one commits oneself to are corrupted by human nature. To Vo Danh, his aunt is just who she is committed to be, without being either good or bad.
Vo Danh and Bon leave the next morning to find jobs at a Vietnamese restaurant near the Eiffel tower. The restaurant is owned by a mobster. They are hired and choose to rent a room from the mobster. Bon mostly leaves Nguyen’s story until the last chapters of the book. He chooses to keep a low profile as a restaurant employee.
Vo Dahn takes an entirely different path. Vo Dahn becomes a customer procurer and seller for the mobster’s drug business.
Vo Danh’s experience in a Vietnam re-education camp taught him to believe in nothing. That teaching came from his third blood brother who is commandant of the camp during the Vietnam war.
This third blood brother is a communist sympathizer in name only. Before becoming camp commandant, this third blood brother is badly disfigured by an American napalm attack. He realizes Democracy’s liberation of Vietnam from communism is a meaningless chimera. In that realization, he re-educates Vo Danh to understand communism, authoritarianism, and democracy are fictions.
Re-education camps are a euphemism for detention and torture.
Committed beliefs about government mean nothing. One’s first thought is that the third brother is simply a nihilist. Vo Dahn understands something different. In sum, the commandant teaches Vo Dahn that commitment to any ideological belief is a trap. Even in accepting his blood brother’s re-education, Vo Dahn recalls the love of his mother. He believes the selfless love of his mother saves him from being a nihilist.
Vo Dahn does not consider himself a nihilist but agrees that believing in nothing liberates humanity.
In Paris, Vo Danh chooses to become a mobster who sells drugs for a percentage of profits. He lives life as he chooses. He expresses no personal scruple about sale or personal use of drugs or alcohol. He has no fear of the drug supplying restaurant owner, arrest as a legal consequence, or possible attack by competing mobsters. Vo Danh lives an amoral life informed by the love of his deceased mother. His life experience and studied philosophical beliefs lead him to believe in nothing as a way of living in an unprincipled world. His actions in the world are formed by the mother who loved him and a father (who is a priest) that abandoned him.
What is troubling about Nguyen’s story is that love and care is often missing or mutually misunderstood between a mother and her children. One might accept Nguyen’s story for those children who are truly loved and cared for by their mothers. However, if mothers are to be on a pedestal, what about the affect of mothers who do not truly love or care for their children. Are uncaring mothers responsible for children who become mass murderers, dictators, mobsters, and other societal miscreants?
Nguyen’s story has a strong point of view, but it diminishes the complexity of a child’s growth to adulthood. Interaction between mothers, fathers, and their offspring are interpreted though the minds of their children.
One is reminded of fictional and news worthy stories of children who are raised in perfect families who become serial killers.
A recurring truism in Nguyen’s story is that all humans are created equal. When one is asked where they are from, the only correct answer is “I am from my mother”. Nothing else matters. Color, national origin, religious belief, or sexual orientation do not determine the value of a human being. Nguyen is a great writer with a point of view worthy of many philosophers of this and past ages.