Like the good ghosts they are, Vo Danh and Bon immediately come into contact with an underworld acquaintance from their refugee camp days, a crime boss named, well, the boss, who deals in drugs, a Protection Racket, a brothel named Heaven and the worst Asian restaurant in Paris, run by a murderous crew called the Seven Dwarfs. Bon becomes an enforcer while Vo Danh mainly cleans the horrible restroom in the restaurant. Our narrator, however, is nothing if not resourceful. His aunt (who is not really his aunt) and his white French colleagues have lost their hash merchant and with the patron’s blessing, Vo Danh intervenes. 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 a required camera and protruding teeth.
Soldier and spy, neither Bon nor Vo Danh are particularly well suited to the anonymous life of the immigrant civilian. The reader almost feels their relief when a new war breaks out. Another group of immigrants – a group of Algerians born in France – do not like competition from drugs, and there are stabbing, shootings, kidnappings, CIA gadgets, interrogations and torture. If the return of the repressed is not enough, the old war is also resurfacing. The faceless man who tortured Bon and Vo Danh at the re-education camp now works at the Vietnamese Embassy. Bon aims to kill him, and Vo Danh tries to stop his friend – because he knows something Bon doesn’t.
As you can see, “The Committed” indulges in espionage in abundance, but in truth the author is not as interested in them as a crude plot summary might indicate. Nguyen is not the Square and does not wish to be. The novel derives its true enchantment – and immense power – from the propulsive and expansive intelligence of our narrator as he us Virgil through his final descent into hell. That he’s as funny as he is smart is the best advantage of all.
Halfway through the novel, Bon tells Vo Danh, “It’s guys like you who have to talk. If you don’t speak, you will die. Vo Danh speaks, a lot, a critical speech that’s as exhilarating as any of the novel’s generic twists. For a ghost chained man like himself, it’s his way of living in a shattered world, assembling new stories from the rubble of the old, fighting against all the forces that would erase and warp him. As a victim and beneficiary of the contradictory radiations of colonization, Vo Danh is well attuned to the complex ways in which the former colonizers forget their crimes (and the former colonized, their accomplices), and how Whiteness and its allies will accuse the absolutely everything colored people – no proof needed. In his eternal 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.