The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen

“And here you are, safe in your asylum, one of the committed. The question is: Committed to what?”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 368 pages
Read from January 26, 2021 to February 2, 2021.

I was so excited to find this anticipated sequel to The Sympathizer on Netgalley and was even more thrilled that I’ve had a chance to read and review it before its publication. This story is a immediate continuation of The Sympathizer and won’t make much sense if you have not read it.

We were the unwanted, the unneeded, and the unseen, invisible to all but ourselves. Less than nothing, we also saw nothing as we crouched blindly in the unlit belly of our ark. . . Even among the unwanted there were unwanted, and at that some of us could only laugh.

Arriving in Paris as a refugee, the Sympathizer is still reeling from the trauma of his communist reeducation camp experiences in Vietnam. He was a communist spy working in America, a double-agent, though he always classified himself as a sympathizer to either cause, not that his blood brother Bon, an anti-communist, knows that. After a horrendous journey he and Bon arrive in Paris to stay with his French-Vietnamese ‘Aunt’, the communist woman who was his correspondence while he was in America. Between mingling with her snooty left-wing intellectual friends, the Sympathizer throws himself into capitalism through drug dealing. Bon is as immensely traumatized as the Sympathizer especially as he made it out of Vietnam alive but his wife and child did not. The Sympathizer knows that Bon will kill him if he ever finds out that he isn’t the die-hard communist hater that he is and that he was once a double agent but Bon is the closest thing to family that he has had since his mother. Unable to resolve his moral and political dilemma and unsure of where his personal beliefs stand he verges on the fence of nihilism and self-destruction.

And here you are, safe in your asylum, one of the committed. The question is: Committed to what? You have had two years …to confess to the crimes you have committed, to acknowledge that after everything you have been through, everything you have done, you are still committed to revolution, which must mean you’re crazy.

The book has a completely different tone and approach than the previous book. The Sympathizer was deliberately written as a spy or adventure type of novel. Wanting to take a different approach, the author stated in an interview that,

“I wanted to write a dialectical novel with The Sympathizer and to write a novel deeply influenced by Marxism and Marxist theory.” and to explore ideas such as “what does [a] disillusioned former revolutionary do with himself?”

Viet Thanh Nguyen,“On Writing Memory and Identity: An Interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen

This novel is by far more philosophical and theoretical than The Sympathizer which, at times is refreshing, but if you were hoping for more of the same spy action you might be disappointed. It’s not that this plot isn’t without action it’s that the author’s state is distressing and even while filling his head with rhetoric from people he would have gone on with previously, he see flaws in their beliefs and their racist personas and can’t come to terms with the indifferent person he is now. This story is one of trauma, love, friendship, sexism, rhetoric, and racism. The writing quality is still of immense quality and you still feel committed to this sad character and how his story is going end, it just didn’t pack the same punch as The Sympathizer. However, that book is definitely a tough act to follow. The narrator’s inner thoughts are still the best parts of the story and how he manages his trauma, decisions, and realisations. I really enjoyed reading this conclusion of his story and would highly recommend reading this novel to any that enjoyed The Sympathizer.

Unfree Speech by Joshua Wong

What were you doing when you were 14 years old? I’m sure it wasn’t trying to overthrow the influence of Communist China in your home country. Unless your name is Joshua Wong, that is.

5/5 stars.
ebook, 256 pages.
Read from May 12, 2020 to May 13, 2020.

Hong Kong is my current home and while I am an expat here, I have a serious love and passion for this country that has given me so much.  I have lived here for the last four years and I have seen Hong Kong and I have witnessed first hand, its people fight for their right to their identity, culture, and democracy. It’s been a humbling experience and it has made me extremely proud of the people here and of the place I call my current home. Hong Kong’s history is rife with being taken over by others and Hong Kongers have had enough.

A quick summary of Hong Kong’s history so that you have a base premise for this novel. Hong Kong was a British colony for 156 years and was handed over back to China in 1997. This handover was not something that Hong Kong people asked for or had any say in the matter.  Can you imagine growing up in a democratic country to all of a sudden being handed over to a communist government? Mass migrations of Hong Kongers left their home during this time afraid of what the Chinese government might turn their home country into by robbing them of their democratic rights. Many Chinese people fled from China to Hong Kong after the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 in search of a transparent government that valued democratic freedoms so there was a big concern about what Hong Kong would become after the handover. A deal was made between the British and Chinese governments called the Sino-British Joint Declaration and it was decided that until 2047, Hong Kong would work under a “one country, two systems ” principle with the premise to maintain some of Hong Kong’s freedoms and make for a smooth transition to whatever it is that China wants for Hong Kong. It was at this time Britain pretty much washed their hands of Hong Kong. Things seem unchanged, at least for a little while, but the Chinese government bided its time and eventually began to press their agenda onto Hong Kong. Hong Kong is no longer a democracy and the facade that China has tried is no longer being tolerated by the people in Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong is a city that isn’t British and doesn’t want to be Chinese, an its need to assert a distinct identity grows by the year.”

This book is a coming of age story about a boy and his country. At the age of 14, Joshua Wong started a movement to stop China from forcing its education system into Hong Kong and succeeded. In 2011 the Chinese government subtly decided that it was time for Hong Kong to have similar education standards as the mainland and introduced the Moral and National Education (MNE). What this would mean is that the students would be learning the same curriculum as those on the mainland. While that may not seem like much, it was a way for China to start moulding the youth of Hong Kong to their beliefs and political stances. For example, mainland students do not learn about the Tiananmen Square incident, meaning that the Chinese government lies to their people to save face and hid from their serious mistakes. Isn’t that horrifying? Hong Kongers at the time had become complacent and weren’t paying attention to the freedoms that they were slowly starting to lose and if it weren’t for Joshua and those involved in Scholarism, Hong Kong might be in a very different place right now.

The story doesn’t stop there as the Joshua discusses his activism through the Umbrella Movement in 2014 with the aim to give Hong Kong universal suffrage, a movement that may have failed to bring about its aim but was successful in bringing awareness to Hong Kongers and to the world. He shares his journal during his political imprisonment over the 2014 movements, how those involved with Scholarism created a political group that was successfully voted in only to later be kicked out by the Chinese government. Joshua also discusses the latest events of the Extradition bill protests that shook Hong Kong for months during 2019. The Extradition bill was a bill that would allow the Chinese government to arrest anyone on Hong Kong on suspicion of a crime and have you transported to mainland China, a sketchy proposition considering China’s poor reputation with human rights and questionable judiciary system. Hong Kongers exploded onto the scene with protests by the millions in one of the largest leaderless movements in political history. When the government didn’t listen, over, and over again, the movements became more radical but shaded in comparison to the violent approach taken by the government and police. In the end, the extradition bill was removed and considered “dead” by Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

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Joshua is immensely humble, intelligent, and well-spoken. He’s an outspoken and down to earth person who has a love for video games, anime, and his country. Joshua’s passion for his country, people and beliefs oozes out of this book, even in translation. He is a testament to how young people can create change. His book summarizes the Hong Kong political system and its current political strifes in a way that’s easy to digest. The biggest take away that Joshua wants to make with this book is that what happens to Hong Kong matters not only to its people but to the world. If Hong Kong fails to fight off one of the biggest regimes in the world, it means that the rest of the world’s freedoms are at stake too. China is a bully and if they are not made accountable they will continue to push other countries around. Hong Kong’s plight is the world’s plight. Joshua was TIME magazine’s Most Influential Teens of 2014 and was nominated for its 2014 Person of the Year; he was further called one of the “world’s greatest leaders” by Fortune magazine in 2015 and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 along with a few others from his team. His latest efforts include the signing of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 with the US in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy campaign.

I’d recommend this book to every local and expat in Hong Kong, to those that want to know more about the situation in Hong Kong, and for those that care about freedom.

 

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

“Love is the longing for the half of ourselves we have lost.”

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 314 pages.
Read from April 11, 2019 to April 17, 2019.

Readers of this book either love it or hate and I would say that both opinions would be valid. The book covers a large scope of history specific to Czechoslovakia with manipulative, provocative, and dynamic characters. The majority of the book is set in Prague, Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and 1970s and specifically during a time of political reform called the Prague Spring. Milan Kundera, the author, is of Czech origin but has lived in exile in France since 1971, where he became a naturalised citizen in 1981. Milan’s books were banned under the communist rule in Czechoslovakia and remained banned until the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Readers have speculated if any of the characters in this book and many of Milan’s others are in any way autobiographical, to which Milan responded in a 1985 interview with New York Times,

“No character in my novels is a self-portrait, nor are any of my characters the portrait of a living person. I don’t like disguised autobiographies. I hate writers’ indiscretions.”

The Unbearable Lightness of Being follows the lives of two men, two women, and one dog and how their lives intertwine during the years of political upheaval in Czechoslovakia. Tomas is a womanizing surgeon who marries the young and vulnerable Tereza, despite his inability (unwillingness) to be faithful. He claims to love Tereza more than anything but cannot give up seeing other women and battles his feelings for Tereza through the entire novel. Tomas even taunts her in her sleep by whispering in her ear his infidelities which causes Tereza to have horrendous and violent dreams about him with other women. Tereza is miserable and mad with jealousy but the two of them just can’t seem to be apart. The two of them have a delightful dog named Karenin who adores Tereza. One of Toma’s long-time lovers, Sabina has a similar nature to Tomas in how she treats her lovers but she has a turbulent history of her own that has made her that way. Franz is one of her lovers.  Each of the characters works their way through their turbulent relationships and personal faults as the country fills with the uproar of communism.

This prose of this book is undeniably poetic and beautiful giving it redeeming qualities long past its intriguing story, though not every reader has felt that way.

“The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body.The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”

Many find Milan’s writing dry and dull, while others, myself included, find it to be brilliant. As I opened this review, readers either love or hate this book because is like an invitation into this place of history and into the lives of these people and if you’re not interested in either from the beginning the book will do little for you. The depth at which Milan exposes his characters is rich and at times unnervingly honest. He discusses love and personal faults in a way most would not find romantic but at least poetic and realistic, giving the topics their own unique sense of beauty and awe. Toma’s is not good to Tereza with his womanising ways but as the backstory on each character grows you find fault with each character and see how they tend to create their own dynamic miseries making you empathise with them all on one way or another.

I would recommend this book for those that enjoy literary fiction, history and historical fiction, philosophical or poetic prose (especially if you enjoyed Proust) or honest and flawed characters.