V.Vietnamese coffee rewards its consumer with the perfect balance of sweetness and bitterness, but you have to earn it. At first there is an acute risk of burns, then the procedure becomes a test of patience when the black broth drips onto the sugary puddle of condensed milk for minutes – the longer the harder the coffee was pressed into the sieve. In “Die Idealisten” the processing time of a Vietnamese coffee marks the difference between life and death, between the opportunity for in-depth analysis and crashing John Woo memory action.
The author in charge is called Viet Thanh Nguyen, came to Pennsylvania as a refugee from Vietnam with his family in 1975, now teaches English and comparative literature at the University of Southern California and in 2016 won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with “The Sympathizer”. In it, a communist spy disguised as an adjutant is flown from Saigon to Los Angeles during the last legs of the Vietnam War, from where he sends encrypted messages to his comrades back home, always on his guard so as not to arouse the suspicion of his general . In between he assists an arrogant young director filming a Vietnam War epic and finally survives a communist re-education camp, where he writes his life confession: the novel itself.
A man with two faces
“Die Idealisten” is the sequel, which, thanks to various flashbacks, does not necessarily require knowledge of the predecessor. Which does not mean that it does not benefit richly from it. Everything begins once more with the nameless protagonist who arrives in Paris accompanied by his blood brother Bon – an outspoken communist hater who, ironically, has no idea about his friend’s espionage activities. In the months that followed, he got involved in what is arguably the most capitalist of all economic sectors – the illegal drug trade.
With his spy, Viet Thanh Nguyen has created one of the most fascinating fictional characters of the past few years, and that applies across all genres. Born in North Vietnam and raised in South Vietnam, the son of a Vietnamese woman and a French priest, which earned him the unflattering nickname “crazy bastard”. A man with two faces who regularly breaks out into sudden crying fits because his biggest problem is that he has sympathy for all sides: that of the communists, that of the capitalists and – with that, dealing with the Parisian intelligentsia, the gratefully buys his material from him – including that of the colonialists.
What to do
Critics already praised “The Sympathizer” and now “The Idealists” as a prime example of the use of an unreliable narrator. It is questionable whether this category really applies. The few white lies? For free. Rather, the spy is the proverbial open book that lies before us, in all its ambivalence and uncertainty.
“The years as a spy, sleeper and mole had exposed me to so much stress that the thread of my screw was now worn out,” he muses. “As long as she was properly tightened, my two souls had worked reasonably well together. Now my screw went crazy – the general condition of humanity – and was no longer stuck. ”Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether a plot ends with a fictional character getting a bullet between the eyes or not. More central is the philosophical problem that the spy, in the face of being overwhelmed by all the options in this world, constantly confronts himself and that he formulates as a simple question: What should one do?
Unsuitable as bedtime reading
As the author of two extensive confessions, he must have found his own personal answer: writing. Which is immediately followed by the next question: How to write? In any case, Viet Thanh Nguyen does not waste time with formalities. In his dialogues he dispenses with quotation marks, in his train of thought sometimes over five consecutive pages on dots, and depending on his mood and drug level, his spy is sometimes an I, then again a you and finally even a we, which “The Idealists” mean as bedtime reading largely disqualified.
The result is a burlesque stream of consciousness that keeps its readers engaged by cleverly playing with the rhythm. Keyword “Vietnamese coffee”. Contrary to expectations, it is mainly the violent moments in which Nguyen slows down the pace and only presses the important information through the sieve in droplets.
If the spy is the victim of a robbery by the competing Algerian drug mafia or finds himself in the torture cellar with electrodes stuck to his nipples, then his memories show the mother who is sacred to him as the only one in the world, then he tries the French ideal of To reconcile liberté, égalité, fraternité with the anti-colonialist theses of Frantz Fanon, to buy time until he has an answer he can live with. Like its optical equivalent, literary slow motion sharpens the big question that Nguyen passes directly to his readers via spy: What to do?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: “The Idealists”. Novel. From the American by Wolfgang Müller. Blessing Verlag, Munich 2021. 496 pp., Hardcover, € 24.