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Annam Hardcover – September 1, 1996
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"The soldiers had not sought to understand Vietnam," intones the narrator of Annam. "This was not forgiven them." This simple statement could serve as the epigram for the experience of both France and the United States in Vietnam in the 20th century, although in this case, Christophe Bataille is describing the agonizing end of a band of soldiers that arrived in the country in 1788. Annam was a 1993 prizewinner in France. At the time Bataille was just 21 years old. The very short book (fewer than 100 pages) tells the tale of French missionaries who sail to Vietnam escorted by the French military. Told in an austere, reductive style, the novel is a moral fable that lays out the historical context for two centuries of foreign invaders' misunderstanding of a country they could never really hope to conquer.
From Publishers Weekly
Winner of France's Prix du Premier Roman in 1993 for its then 21-year-old author, this short first novel is a parable about the hubris of colonialism and the power of place. In 1787, Canh, the seven-year-old emperor of Vietnam, visits the French court of Louis XVI, beseeching France to send troops and missionaries to his troubled land. Canh dies of pneumonia, his offer rejected by the soon-to-be-beheaded king. But one year later, two French ships crammed with Dominican monks and nuns, as well as soldiers, make the perilous journey to Vietnam. The expedition's goal is to help Vietnamese Prince Regent Nguyen Anh, exiled in Siam, recover his throne. The missionaries start a religious community, build dikes and rafts, teach French and evangelize. Meanwhile, France suffers the paroxysm of its revolution. In 1800, Nguyen Anh, having seized power?and embittered because the French colonists have abandoned him?launches a massacre of the Dominican missionaries. Only two survive, Sister Catherine and Brother Dominic. As they mesh with the villagers, their religious convictions erode and they eventually become lovers. In Howard's superb translation, Bataille's style, built around short sentences, achieves a cumulative lyricism that poignantly captures the unfulfilled promise and tragedy of a historic moment that preceded the French conquest of Saigon by more than half a century.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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I had a personal interest in the story, having visited Vietnam on four occasions, one being an "all-expenses paid government trip," under not very favorable circumstances, that lasted a year, in 1968. After all, at some level, it was the lifestyle (and yes, geopolitical power) of 40,000 French "colons" (who had collaborated with Japan in WW II) that led the United States to this country half way around the world. So, how really did France establish its presence there?
Although Bataille provides deft and incisive descriptions of the expedition, and its principals, the novella is a mish-mash jumble of the true historical facts. For example, the principal organizer of the expedition in question, Pierre Pigneau de Brehaine did not die in France, not knowing the fate of the expedition, as Bataille has it in the novella, but rather in Qui Nhon, Vietnam, in 1799, many years after he supposedly died. As for Prince Nguyen Canh, who in real life, did visit the court at Versailles, in 1787, but did NOT die in France, as Bataille has it, but rather successfully returned to Vietnam, and waited more than a decade to die, in 1801, at the age of 21. Very significant changes from the historical record, and I could see no conceivable artistic reason that would support it. Historical novels do enter into the realm of the imagination, and I am all for that, provided the narrative is grounded on the historical facts, as they are generally understood to be. I also suspect that Bataille, at the age of 21 when he wrote the novella, had never visited Vietnam, and thus numerous aspects of the geography are "fuzzy," from areas that are cold when they should not be, as well as a depiction of a journey to the Central Highlands, that did not conform to the topography, nor the inhabitants (the Montagnards) that would be found there.
A prize given too early in life? Yes, it definitely seems so. Wouldn't it have been far better to have encouraged a meticulous adherence to the actual historical facts, and then let the imagination loose, with the expedition remnants, who were both initially of "the cloth" finding solace in the pleasures of the flesh, during the monsoons that were drenching Kontum? Regrettably, only 2-stars.
Bataille tells a story with simplicity. He tells it chronologically but tersely with just a stroke of color here and there, a bit of dialogue, a snatch of inner monologue, and from time to time a little catching up of details not previously mentioned. He begins with a child emperor from Vietnam who has come to France to implore Henry XVI to help his father the Prince Regent regain his position of power taken from him by a peasant's revolt. But the strange child, who became a toy of "bored courtiers hungry for novelty" is ineffectual and dies of pneumonia.
And then we have the former Bishop of Adran, who had been taken with the child, commission two ships to sail to Vietnam to bring salvation to the heathens there; and so we have our main set of characters, a small group of Dominican clergy and nuns who brave the long and tortuous voyage to eventually arrive at the city of Saigon in the Mekong Delta. And after some long years we have Brother Dominic and Sister Catherine living in utter simplicity as peasants in the highlands of Vietnam in a place called Annam.
This is a tale that emphasizes the earthy quality of life, the spirituality that comes with living a life of Zen-like simplicity in contrast to the world of affairs of church and state and war and trade. It is a search for a return to the Garden of Eden. On another level this tale hints of a world to come with France as a colonial power in Vietnam and then as France removed.
The book is short, 87 pages. Temporally speaking it is like a novel as each paragraph and the space between consume so much of time, and yet it is like a short story in its compression of the lives and times of its characters. Bataille is a fine talent and I will read more of his work.