Like the good revenants they are, Vo Danh and Bon immediately fall in with an underworld acquaintance from their refugee camp days, a crime boss named, well, the Boss, who runs drugs, a protection racket, a brothel named Heaven and the worst Asian restaurant in Paris, staffed by a murderous crew called the Seven Dwarves. Bon becomes an enforcer while Vo Danh mostly scrubs the restaurant’s awful toilet. Our narrator, however, is nothing if not resourceful. His aunt (who is not really his aunt) and her white French confreres have lost their resident hash dealer and with the blessing of the Boss, Vo Danh steps in. Not the first revolutionary to become a drug capitalist — and not the last. To avoid the gaze of the “Repressive State Apparatus” he disguises himself as a stereotypical Japanese tourist, with requisite camera and protruding teeth.
Soldier and spy, neither Bon nor Vo Danh is particularly well suited for the anonymous life of the immigrant civilian. The reader almost senses their relief when a new war breaks out. Another group of immigrants — a band of French-born Algerians — resents the drug competition, and there are stabbings, shootings, kidnappings, C.I.A. gadgets, interrogations and torture. If that’s not return-of-the-repressed enough, the old war resurfaces as well. The faceless man who tortured both Bon and Vo Danh at the re-education camp is now working at the Vietnamese Embassy. Bon sets his sights on killing him, and Vo Danh sets his on trying to stop his friend — for he knows something that Bon doesn’t.
As you can see, “The Committed” indulges in espionage high jinks aplenty, but in truth the author is not as interested in them as a cursory plot summary might indicate. Nguyen is no le Carré and doesn’t wish to be. The novel draws its true enchantment — and its immense power — from the propulsive, wide-ranging intelligence of our narrator as he Virgils us through his latest descent into hell. That he happens to be as funny as he is smart is the best plus of all.
Halfway through the novel, Bon says to Vo Danh: “It’s guys like you who have to talk. If you don’t talk, you’d die.” Vo Danh does talk, a lot, a critical patter that’s as exhilarating as any of the novel’s generic twists. For a ghost-chained man like him, it’s his way of living in a broken world, of assembling new stories from the napalmed rubble of the old, of battling all the forces that would erase and distort him. As both victim and beneficiary of coloniality’s contradictory radiations, Vo Danh is exquisitely attuned to the complex ways that former colonizers forget their crimes (and former colonized, their complicities), and how whiteness and its allies will accuse people of color of absolutely everything — no evidence necessary. In his forever war against the forces of colonialism and white supremacy, Vo Danh is still a revolutionary, even though he perceives the bitter truth that revolutions always fail their followers, and his is no exception.