Passion For Vietnam

passion-for-vietnam

My young friend Laurent Colin was so kind as to send me as it came out a copy of Annam by Christophe Bataille.
How it came about that this book of ninety pages, the first novel of a young man of 21 had taken Paris by storm last autumn and this while French publishers put out nearly 400 titles each month? It seems that half a million copies came out in the first printing.

The author had spent only a few months in Vietnam. And yet an old Indochina hand of the calibre of Jean Lacouture expressed his admiration unstintingly. Here is a rough and, of necessity, rather inadequate translation of a passage in his appreciation of the book: “One has to be a passionate lover of Vietnam like me, a man possessed by the memory of those long splashes of wavy light under a pale sky, of those eager and swashing crowds, of that seriousness seen on countless faces, of that evasive and laughing heroism, of that patient and unbending world, in order to love such an evocation of Vietnam as it was two centuries ago… “(…)” I don’t believe it. Many will feel the insidious, vaguely perverse in its suavity, charm exuding from it”.

Let me say right away that a nitpicking Vietnamese reader will be somewhat annoyed by a few inaccuracies: first he will object to the appellation “Annam” (Pacified South) which reminds him of the Chinese Tang domination and the colonial division of his country into three administrative units. To call Prince Canh emperor of Vietnam is an abuse of literary licence; Canh’s father himself was only a “lord”, not a “king”. The use of Vietnam as the official name of the country happened only sometime around 1804. Was it Gia Long who ordered the massacre of Dominican priests? Or was it rather his successor Minh Mang etc.

But one should not cavil at someone whose aim is to write a novel, not a book of history. For him, Vietnam is but a pretext and the interest of the book lies somewhere else.

The time is the late 18th century. While revolution sweeps France, French priests sail to Cochinchina to do evangelistic work among farmers there. In the tropics friar Dominique and sister Catherine allow themselves to be seduced by the humid warmth of village atmosphere and the villagers’ kindness and simplicity. They are given the revelation of the flesh freed from the fear of sin. They die happy, united in the same grave. Christ has stopped at the mouth of the Mekong River.

This beautiful story of divine human love is told in a sober and vigorous style, which exudes tenderness and tongue-in-check irony. The Vietnamese reader will appreciate the author’s passion for Vietnam, which he depicts as a Shangri-la.

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