[Readings] Something From Nothing, By Viet Thanh Nguyen | Harper's Magazine

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Something From Nothing


From The Committed, which will be published this month by Grove Press.

The hemorrhoidal clerk grunted painfully when he saw me that afternoon. He struck a match, and the flash of its flame and the hiss of its short, deep breath lit something within me—the fuse of a plot, the long trail of gunpowder in a children’s cartoon that led to the explosive climax.

Could I see the Boss?

Does he want to see you?

Just tell him I have a proposition for him.

When I was at last called into the office, I found the Boss sitting on a well-padded chair at a clean desk examining a ledger. Rumor had it that he had never gone to school but had been taught on the streets, and anything that he had not learned there he had taught himself. My heart softened for this poor, abandoned orphan when I imagined what he, with his talent and ambition, could have become with a proper education: The manager of an investment fund! The president of a bank! The captain of an industry! Or, to consult my Marxist thesaurus: A vulture of capitalism! A sucker of blood! A launderer of profits distilled from the sweat of the people!

I was no longer a communist who believed in a party, but I was still a descendant of Marx who believed in a theory, and that theory offered the best critique of capitalism available. To expect capitalists to critique themselves was like asking the police to police themselves—

What is it? the Boss said.

The hashish . . .

He grinned and leaned back in his chair. Good stuff, right?

So I’ve heard. I haven’t tried it myself.

Good. There are some things you should neither try nor buy.

I saw myself explaining, with the enthusiasm of a sales pitch, the situation with my aunt’s friends, the politician and the Maoist PhD. I had given them a taste of the goods, I heard myself saying. My screw was quite loose at that moment, providing me with enough distance to see myself become what I swore I would never become: a capitalist.

Interesting, the Boss said, the fingers of his hands forming a steeple. Not that it’s a surprise. Not at all. Even those people would enjoy the things I can give them.

They’re only human. So very human.

Exactly! He was greatly amused, if the smile on his face was any indication. Even the French are only human. The rich, too. Especially the rich.

I’m not sure that they’re rich. They’re intellectuals.

If they don’t work with their hands, they’re rich. And that politician is definitely rich. But even if you’re not a politician or an intellectual—he turned his palms to me so I could see the map of his toil, the scars and calluses of his personal geography—that doesn’t mean you can’t get rich by working with your hands. He checked the symmetrical white cuticles of his fingernails, manicured at a nail salon that he owned, then looked at me again.

What do you want?

As I watched myself with that unfeeling sense that I was a stranger even to me, all I heard myself say was: You supply, I sell.

Thirty percent, he said.

Forty percent.

He was amused. Twenty-five percent.

It was difficult to negotiate with someone who could take a hammer out of his desk drawer and break your knuckles or kneecaps without compunction or hesitation. You’re too generous, I said. The Boss nodded toward the door. In parting he said, I’m not sure whether you’re less crazy or more crazy for wanting to do this.

I’m not crazy.

That’s what the crazy ones always say.

That night, my aunt and I smoked hashish and drank the finest Haut-Médoc and listened to the finest American jazz, that black-and-blue music so beloved by the French partially because every sweet note reminded them of American racism, which conveniently let them forget their own racism. My aunt had finished reading the confession I’d been forced to give in prison. She remained unbothered by what had happened to me: locked up with a thousand fetid fellows for a year on starvation rations, forced to write and rewrite a confession, and then, for the coup de grâce, thrown into solitary confinement, naked, with sacks over my head, hands, and feet, periodically jolted by low-level electricity that kept me awake for an unknown amount of time, until I could no longer distinguish my body from its surroundings, time itself losing meaning as I was bombarded with an unrelenting sonic attack composed of an infant’s recorded howling, until at last I could pass the final exam. It was this exam, which she had finally gotten to, that disturbed my aunt, leading her to mutter over and over again its only question: what is more precious than independence and freedom?

Like every good revolutionary, my aunt already knew the answer, Ho Chi Minh’s most famous slogan, a spell that mobilized millions to rise and die in order to evict the French and then the Americans, to unify our country and liberate it. After she muttered the question, she declaimed the answer, first as an incantation, which was how it was intended to be said: nothing is more precious than independence and freedom!

And then again with her voice rising, as a question: nothing is more precious than independence and freedom?

Exactly, I said sadly, shaking my head and giving her for free what had cost me so much to learn. Nothing is, in fact, more precious than independence and freedom.

No, no, no! Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom—I mean, independence and freedom are more precious than nothing, not the other way around!

You read my confession. I sighed, then inhaled so deeply from the laced cigarette that my lungs sizzled, the smoke that issued forth reminding me of how everything solid eventually melts into air. Have you learned nothing?

Shut up! she cried. Give me that cigarette.

Doesn’t nothing make more sense after hashish?

No. Nothing makes sense at all after your confession.

Of course it does. You just refuse to make sense of nothing, as most people do. Now if you had gone through reeducation like I had, under the hands of a master revolutionary theorist such as Man, you would understand that nothing is contradictory, like everything meaningful—love and hate, capitalism and communism, France and America. Leave it to the simpleminded to understand only one side of a contradiction. You’re not simpleminded, are you?

I hate you, she groaned, eyes closed. Why did I invite you into my house?

It’s all quite funny, if you think about it. Almost as funny as the funniest part of my confession, said by none other than Man himself, which should be engraved on the pedestal of Ho Chi Minh’s statue, if he has a statue. Except that it is unprintable, as the truth too often is: “Now that we are the powerful, we don’t need the French or the Americans to fuck us over—”

“We can fuck ourselves just fine,” she said.

I howled with laughter, slapped my knee, felt tears moistening my cheeks. This hashish was really something else! Come on, I said after my laughter had subsided. Isn’t that funny?

No. She stubbed out her cigarette. That’s not funny. You used to believe in the revolution, she said. What do you believe in now?

Nothing, I said. But isn’t that something?

So you’re going to sell drugs.

Well, I muttered. Even under a cloud of hashish, I could see that her contempt had a point. It’s better than nothing.

My aunt drew herself up from where she had been reclining on the couch and turned off the stereo. So long as you were a revolutionary, I could have you living here for free as my service to the revolution and as an expression of my belief in solidarity, she said. She was remarkably eloquent after the hashish, but perhaps her passion had focused her. But if you’re going to be dealing drugs—

You’re making a moral judgment?

I make no moral judgment. I’m the one smoking hashish. And sometimes criminals make the best revolutionaries, or revolutionaries are condemned as criminals. But if you’re no longer a revolutionary and you’re going to be selling drugs, and sleeping on my couch, and asking me to protect you from Bon by keeping your communist past a secret, then you can afford to split the profits with me.

My mouth, already slightly agape under the influence of the hashish, fell completely open.

What’s the matter? she said, lighting another hashish cigarette. Too contradictory for you?

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