Excerpt from The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Committed

by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen X
The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2021, 400 pages

    Mar 2022, 384 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer Hon Khalaf
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Print Excerpt

What's wrong? he said. Are you crying again?

I'm not crying, I sobbed. I'm just so overcome to be home at last.

By now Bon was used to my unpredictable bursts of tears. He sighed and took me by the hand. In his other hand, he carried only one bag, a cheap cloth duffel, a gift of the United Nations. His bag was nowhere near as fashionable as my leather one, presented to me by my old mentor Claude when I graduated from Occidental College in Southern California. My old man gave me one just like it when I left Phillips Exeter and went to Yale, Claude had told me, his eyes misting. Although he was a CIA agent who saw interrogation and assassination as his trade, he could be sentimental about some things, such as our friendship and high-quality men's furnishings. I held on to the leather bag for this same nostalgic reason. Even though it was not very large, the bag, like Bon's, was not full. Like most refugees we barely had any material belongings, even if our bags were packed with dreams and fantasies, trauma and pain, sorrow and loss, and, of course, ghosts. Since ghosts were weightless, we could carry an infinite number of them.

Passing the baggage carousels, we were the only passengers not pulling suitcases or pushing trolleys burdened with luggage and touristic expectation. We were not tourists, or expatriates, or returnees, or diplomats, or businessmen, or any class of dignified traveler. No, we were refugees, and our experience in a time machine called an international jetliner was not enough to dispel the year we had languished in a reeducation camp or the two years we had passed in a refugee camp on an Indonesian island called Galang. The stainless steel and glass and tile and bright lighting of the airport disoriented us after the bamboo and thatch and mud and candles of the camps, and we walked slowly and haphazardly, bumping against other passengers as we sought the exit. Eventually we came to it and the doors slid open, and we emerged under the vast ceiling of the international arrivals area, where a crowd of expectant faces inspected us.

A woman called out my name. It was my aunt, or, to put it more accurately, the woman who I pretended was my aunt. During my years in the United States as a communist spy inserted into the shabby ranks of the exiled South Vietnamese army, I had written her periodic letters, ostensibly regarding my personal travails as a refugee, but really encoded with secret messages in invisible ink about the machinations of some elements of this army who hoped to take back our homeland from communist rule. We had used Richard Hedd's Asian Communism and the Oriental Mode of Destruction as our common cipher, and it was her task to pass on my messages to Man, blood brother to me and to Bon. I greeted her with relief and trepidation, for she knew what Bon did not and could not ever know, that Man was a spy, as I had been. He was my handler, and if eventually he became my torturer in that reeducation camp, didn't that suit me, a man with two minds? And if my aunt was not really my aunt, wasn't that perfect for a man with two faces?

She was really Man's aunt, and she looked exactly as she had described herself in her last letter: tall, thin, with jet-black hair. There ended the resemblance to what I had imagined of her: someone middle-aged with a back permanently bent from working as a seamstress, humbled by her devotion to the revolution. Instead, this woman's closest relative was a cigarette, judging from the shape of her body and what she held in one hand. She exuded smoke and confidence, and with her aggressive high heels she equaled me in height, although she looked taller, given her slimness, her formfitting gray knit dress, and her hair styled into a peak, a uniform that she would wear every day. Although I knew she was likely in her fifties, she could have passed for someone in her late thirties, blessed as she was by both French style and a half share of Asian genes that rendered her ageless.

Excerpted from The Committed © 2021 Viet Thanh Nguyen. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Grove Press, and imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

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