French leftists pinned by Pulitzer winner

He had not left his country for almost two years, and his first stay abroad was for France. An honor due, of course, to the insistence of its publisher, but also to the content of the novel by the American of Vietnamese origin which takes place exclusively in Paris. Professor of literature at the University of South Carolina, Viet Thanh Nguyen, just 50 years old but looking ten younger, publishes The Devoted (The Committed in English), extension of Sympathizing, awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2016. The hero of this first spy novel, an undercover double agent, fled Vietnam for the United States during the fall of Saigon in 1975. “At the beginning, I had not planned a sequel,” confides the elegant scholar, but I realized that I still had a lot to say about colonialism, imperialism and the trauma of my spy. The Sympathizer, my goal was to offend as many people as possible, the Americans and the Vietnamese, anti-communists as well as communists, I think I succeeded. Who else could I offend? The French !”

Not-so-famous places in the capital

We therefore find his agent in the pay of the Communists, landing in Paris in 1981, the day after the election of François Mitterrand. Born of a French father (a priest) and a Vietnamese mother, Vo Danh (“unnamed”) – also nicknamed Camus or the Mad Bastard – moved to a pseudo-aunt, a Trotskyist editor, friend and lover of all the intellectuals of left, which he will soon supply with various drugs. In order to provide for himself, the narrator works for the Boss, a boss at the head of a gang of dealers of Asian origin – a perilous activity which will cause him many physical setbacks. Viet Thanh Nguyen has a lot of fun in this fascinating, slightly crazy tragicomedy.

There is no doubt that the novelist seems to know like his pocket the 13th arrondissement and the less famous places of the capital. Confirmation of the person concerned: “I love Paris, I have often stayed there for twenty years, but I did not want to give it a romantic image, ‘American’; my novel deals with the Paris of immigrants and refugees, far from the postcard. I also drew a lot from the literature, the cinema and the music of your country. ” Voltaire, Sartre, Camus, Stendhal, Rousseau, Descartes, Dumas, Balzac, Césaire, Fanon, Deleuze, Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, Kristeva … the list of his readings is impressive, started even before college. “Isn’t France a world cultural power?” laughs Nguyen who, with a piercing eye, grazes here and there some of our hobbies, from manifestationnite to Hallidaymania (he prefers Dutronc). More seriously, he strikes pretty pikes at the leftists of the 1980s – here a Maoist doctor, an anarchist lawyer or even a “pink socialist” mayor, who once sang Ho Chi Minh.

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Fantasized Indochina

“I alternate, comments the author. The Sympathizer, I attacked people on the right, there I ridiculed people on the left. All ideologies look wonderful to those who created them, but they are quickly corrupted when implemented. “Likewise, he scoffs at the nostalgic sense of imperialism that” nearly everyone has. the French at the bottom of their heart, at the bottom of their soul, at the bottom of their Louvre “. And returns to the erroneous image of an Indochina, romantic and fantasized colony, free from the horrors of the war. But if the author speaks of the collective French and American guilt, he does not spare the Vietnamese people and power. Quoting Frantz Fanon (“The colonized is a persecuted person who constantly dreams of becoming a persecutor”), he recalls that “being a victim does you are not necessarily a better person, anti-colonial revolutions often reproduce the violence of the colonizers. ”This will be precisely one of the themes of the upcoming third installment of the adventures of Vo Danh, the complex and formidable antihero of Nguyen, a novelist totally devoted to wash historical rity. Marianne Payot

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The Devoted, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Trad. from English by Clément Baude. Belfond, 416 p., € 23.


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French leftists pinned by Pulitzer winner