The criminal underworld of 1980s Paris provides the backdrop for a number of brilliant set-pieces in this metaphysical thriller in which Nguyen both feeds off and subverts received images of violence. One extended passage involving a deadly game of Russian roulette is a clear nod to a similar scene in the 1978 Vietnam vet classic The Deer Hunter, but Nguyen’s is told with an unvarnished vividness that makes the camera feel like a cop-out. The satire throughout is abrasive and unrelenting. The sympathiser as well-schooled gangster is witheringly funny on the disdainful self-importance of the entitled and the cartoonish binaries of second-string hoodlums.
As with The Sympathizer, plot is really secondary, though. Nguyen dines out on his narrator’s compulsion to see both sides of every issue. A traumatised half-French, half-Vietnamese “man of two faces and two minds”, Vo Danh is strung out by conflicted thoughts about identity, revolution, assimilation and empire. Dense philosophical and political dialectic congest the pages. These are the kinds of gangsters who like to discuss Frantz Fanon’s postcolonial theory. But when one yells, “I don’t need another lecture”, the feeling isn’t necessarily mutual. These are lectures that make you engage.
The plot is shaggier than high-pile carpeting, and features many unsettling sequences, particularly at a nightclub called Heaven, and also in its scenes of kidnapping and violent interrogation. Telling the story occasions a great deal of polemical wordplay on the part of the narrator about what it means to be a knowing arriviste in the imperial metropole: “WE pointed at a thick oval of rustic bread that WE had never ordered before but about which WE had been curious ever since learning its name, which WE now pronounced in the most perfect French by saying, I’d like a bastard if you please.” (The emphasis is Nguyen’s own.)