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“The birds went flying in all directions across the blinding sky of Mr. Russell”s dream, but finally he saw them fly in only one direction and that was toward the point where in the dream he understood himself to be waiting, somewhere beyond the frame.”

The prospect of return often haunts writers in exile. In Francophone literature and film, some of the most prominent novelists and filmmakers have imagined or enacted the return to the homeland. Aimé Césaire”s Cahier d”un retour au pays natal (1947) is surely one of the most famous and among the first. Others would include Maryse Condé”s Hérémakhonon (1988) and Claire Denis”s Chocolat (1988).

Francophone Asian writers have also devoted their creative energies to the issues of exile, nostalgia, and return. From Canada, Ying Chen”s Les Lettres chinoises (1993) imagines an exchange of letters among young Chinese characters in Shanghai and Montreal, while Bach Mai chronicles the filming of a documentary on northeast Thailand and an attempted return to Viet Nam in D”Ivoire et d”opium (1985). From France, Linda Lê creates characters in Calomnies (1993), Les Trois Parques (1997), and Voix (1998), for example, who are racked by guilt for abandoning the “father” and the homeland; and Kim Lefèvre recounts growing up Eurasian in the colonial period in Indochina in Métisse blanche (1989), then her first trip back since 1960 in Retour à la saison des pluies (1990). It is Pham Van Ky, however, who, a generation earlier first imagined, beyond the frame, two complementary returns to Viet Nam, setting the stage for those to follow.

Pham Van Ky stands apart from other Francophone writers from Viet Nam because of his long and varied bibliography. He composed poetry and wrote plays, short stories, and novels. Born in Binh Dinh province in central Viet Nam in 1916, he studied first in Qui Nhon, then at the Lycée du Protectorat in Hanoi. He won the Jeux Floraux prize for a collection of poetry published in Saigon in 1936 and arrived in France in the late 1930s, just before the Second World War. He continued his studies at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Chinoises in Paris. After publishing two additional volumes of verse, he turned to narrative literature. His first novel appeared in 1947, inaugurating a fertile period of creativity that lasted until his death. His talents did not go unrecognized in France: Perdre la demeure, his fifth novel (1961), won the Grand Prix du Roman from the Académie française in 1961, a controversial choice, if one is to believe the newspaper articles that appeared in the French press shortly after the prize was announced.His last novel was published in 1966, but he continued to write. In a personal letter Pham Van Ky wrote that his novels written from the mid-60s on simply slept in the drawers of his desk in his apartment in Maisons-Alfort outside Paris. Pham Van Ky died in 1992, after years of solitude in the suburbs of Paris.

In this essay I would like to examine the first two novels by this remarkable writer, Frères de sang (1947) and Celui qui régnera (1954) .I have chosen these two particular texts, first of all, because they exemplify the characteristics that defined the corpus I call the Francophone literature of Viet Nam: ethnographic presentations of Vietnamese culture, explicit references to a historical and cultural context (e.g., colonialism in Indochina, the struggle for independence, emerging nationalism, the evolution of Vietnamese society), cultural conflict, characters torn between two worlds—all presented for an implied reader who was other, non-Vietnamese, French-speaking.

Moreover, in these two narratives, Viet Nam in turmoil functions as both backdrop and informant, a country between the colonial period and the revolution, between past and future, between tradition and modernity. Both texts cast similar protagonists in villages far from urban centers, colonial or dynastic capitals. Both novels are also semi-autobiographical, their stories told by first-person narrators. Finally, as historians and sociologists have indicated, villages in Viet Nam are microcosms of Vietnamese society, and their stories may have larger implications. In the same way, family stories resonate beyond a particular household. Pham Van Ky chose to set his two novels in villages and tell family stories, knowing, as he must have, that his novels would lend themselves to larger interpretations.

In Frères de sang, a novel which appeared the same year as Césaire”s Cahier, the narrator-protagonist returns to his native village after receiving his doctorate at a university in France. He returns at night, in darkness, to seek his childhood friend Lê Tâm, now blind after having been hit by a car. Lê Tâm is one of the brothers of the title and their “blood” tie was formed by a Cambodian traveler who chanced upon the village long ago and offered to perform the “rite étrange” to transform the narrator and Lê Tâm”s close friendship into a blood brotherhood. The other brother would be his “real” brother, Hô, the son of his mother. A young, idealistic revolutionary, he poses a threat to his father, a mandarin. Because of his rank, the father is the most powerful presence in the village, according to centuries-old Confucian customs. At the same time he represents the past that must be rejected, sclerotic absolute power, unreasonable and exaggerated, but never questioned. Lê Tâm, however, cannot remain silent in the face of the father”s unjust authoritarianism and will be condemned for having spoken and for challenging him. The father will also imprison Hô in his house, the Yamen, only to find him freed later on by the narrator. These male characters are doubled by female counterparts, the narrator”s grandmother and mother as well as his sisters, the traditionalist Co and the feminist Dinh, who teaches the female servant Tu to read and write, then escapes from the village with her. In the end, the indecisive narrator is incapable of choosing which brother to serve as his example, the dead Lê Tâm, now one with nature, or the renegade Hô, joining his comrades in the countryside to fight for the showbizvn.comeration of Viet Nam.

In Frères de sang the narrator embodies the opposition of two cultures; as such he feels disoriented upon his return to the village. His past, the customs of his childhood, are still stored within him: “Quelque dépaysé que je fusse aux premiers jours de mon retour, je n”avais pas moins retrouvé, depuis, de vieilles réactions, de vieux réflexes, de vieilles idées, cachés sous un vernis européen” . This tension is also located on a literary level, as he writes: “Littérature, ce désaxement à la mode. Littérature, ce conflit “aigu” entre deux hémisphères. Je me portais très bien, moi qui en étais la résultante. Ne m”étais-je pas fait autant à l”Orient qu”à l”Occident? Etais-je écartelé, et une moitié de moi s”était-elle détachée de l”autre? <. .> Si banal que cela pût paraître, et si difficile qu”en fût le contrôle, je conservais, dans mon sang, les coutumes, les maladies, la santé de mon pays. J”étais né avec lui, et quoi que je fisse, j”en subirais la loi” However banal it might seem, and however difficult to prove, I still retained in my blood the customs, the maladies, the health of my country. I was born part of my country and whatever I might do I would be subject to its law”>. Thus, the son must imitate his father without asking questions in a play of mirrors that will ensure the repetition of the past under the aegis of filial piety. However, the West obsesses the narrator: “Quand j”eus achevé mes études secondaires à Hanoï, l”Occident me hantait, l”Occident cet autre hémisphère du Savoir. Je quittai donc Lê Tâm et le monde qu”il portait en lui. C”est-à-dire sa vérité. C”est-à-dire la mienne. La vérité, quoi! Et, de nouveau, j”étudiais. Mais des choses que mes Ancêtres ignoraient ou repoussaient a priori” .

Two conflicting educations coexist and destabilize the narrator; he claims to have found “de vieux réflexes” but at the same time he forgets Vietnamese rites and customs, wears black for a funeral instead of traditional white, and considers the world that created him as “anachronique, illogique, dérisoire” . From a narrative perspective, his “ignorance” or “amnesia” would justify the long descriptions in this novel of wedding customs and burial rites. In the end, however, the quest for self and identity on the part of the narrator culminates in his realization the he is in the way, “de trop” , lost and ridiculous.

One could easily read Frères de sang as a study of irreconciliable polarities, the East and the West at the head of a long list that would include tradition and modernity, action and inaction, power and weakness, inside and outside, community and the individual, Yao thinks and I think, order and disorder, purity and corruption, loyalty and betrayal, presence and absence, linear and cyclical time, parchment and stone, progress and repetition, masculine and feminine, dream and reality, Pagoda and Yamen, old and young, desire and duty, stability and instability, obedience and revolt, poetry and logic. This series of dualities is also captured in the opposition of certain characters in the novel: Hô and Lê Tâm, for example, or the narrator”s two sisters, the traditional Co and the revolutionary Dinh. I would suggest, however, that the variety of these oppositions as well as the fact that all these differences coexist in the text, overlapping one another, undermine the very idea of binarity.

Lê Tâm most fully embodies these contradictions. In Frères de sang he is the character who denies categories. The narrator describes Lê Tâm in the following terms: “Toujours ce mépris tranquille des transitions et des réponses directes . . . ” . It is Lê Tâm who seems to live liminality, who opposes the Western cartesianism the narrator assimilated at the Université de Paris. Lê Tâm declares to the narrator: “Voilà dix ans que je m”y efforce à désapprendre de juger et de qualifier, même mentalement, à perdre toute notion du oui et du non, de l”avantage et de l”inconvénient, du droit et du tort, du bien et du mal, et pour soi et pour autrui . . .” . Indeed, he wants to destroy all notion of polarity and difference.

Influenced by his Taoist blood brother, the narrator is able to say: “J”aime le crépuscule. Il suscite l”examen de conscience. C”est l”heure la plus claire pour l”homme” . Inspired by Lê Tâm”s insight amid blindness, the narrator”s decision to locate himself between night and day, between exterior reality and the interior dream, paradoxically provides him with clarity. Moreover, the ambiguous, suspended ending of this novel (the text dissolves into ellipses) and the fact that there are three blood brothers overturn any notion of duality. The literary tension prized by the narrator in his declaration above (and by Pham Van Ky himself in an interview with Adrien Jans) thus challenges Lê Tâm”s professed harmony in order to embrace tension, ambivalence, and ambiguity, the essence of writing from the diaspora.

The narrator of Celui qui régnera is also the son of an official and educated in Western schools. He, too, returns to his village after studying away. He is the son of a mandarin in a family of public servants, and his grandfather, it turns out, was a partisan of the Trinh in their civil war with the Nguyen at the end of the eighteenth century. In winning that war, the latter family founded the last dynasty in Viet Nam, which lasted from 1802 to 1945. The narrator”s point of view allows him to criticize the village he left and to which he returns, as Nguyen Hong Nhiem has rightly noted. However, this narrator is much more inclined to be revolutionary than his counterpart in the first novel. The protagonist”s goal, in fact, is to transform his village, to establish a school open to all, and to build a water wheel to irrigate the rice fields. The technological era has arrived, and the narrator intends to harness it to improve life for everyone, thereby challenging age-old Confucian hierarchies: “Je ne pensai qu”à ce que l”homme édifiait pour l”homme” , he writes.

At first glance, the narrator of Celui qui régnera seems to present the same surface dualities as the narrator of Frères de sang, torn between Viet Nam and France. On one hand his life appears determined by the fact, established in the novel”s short prologue, that he was born in Viet Nam. This short introductory section summarizes the history of his family. He explains that his grandfather had consulted a geomancer to find a proper site for his grave at the time of the civil war. When the enemy army arrives in the village, the grandfather as village elder is buried in quicklime. His horrible and slow death will serve as a spectacular example to all those who dare to revolt. Upon his death his body is burned and his ashes scattered. The chosen tomb remains empty, and the soul of the grandfather is condemned to wander forever. Because of the obligations of filial piety, the children of the grandfather must avenge this act of aggression. This destiny is figured by the closed space of the village, hidden behind the bamboo hedge, a space limited by the lines drawn from the Yamen to the Mirador and the village pond, all evoking the cyclical nature of time. The first sentence of the novel underscores the circularity of history: “Je ne sais plus par où, ni par quoi commencer. A vrai dire, ma vie n”a pas eu de commencement : j”ai toujours existé, soit dans le rêve de mes ancêtres, soit dans l”air de mon pays” . His life, then, is meant to repeat those before and after.

As an apparent cultural insider, the narrator emphasizes his privileged perspective for his foreign, non-Vietnamese interlocutor. In the prologue weighted with family history, the narrator addresses his reader directly: “Vous n”ignorez pas, vous autres occidentaux, dans quelle mesure un sol se révèle sacré. Seulement, vous vous arrêtez à des marques extérieures. Là où vous ne voyez pas de statues équestres, de plaques commémoratives, vous parlez haut et oubliez le passé. Ainsi, chez nous, à chaque pas, vous marchez sur notre histoire, vous piétinez des noms, vous écrasez des dates, vous soulevez une poussière de cendres et de sang séché, vous tombez dans des pièges invisibles, vous profanez des signes évidents . . .” . He reminds the reader, then, that he can see and interpret Vietnamese cultural signs, laying claim to the privileged space of insider.

However, at the same time the register of “foreignness,” “étrangeté,” could easily refer to the narrator himself, returning from school away. Like the protagonist of Frères de sang, he also seems no longer to understand the culture of his birthplace. For him the village has become two-dimensional and its inhabitants impenetrable. He claims to know nothing about the secret science of the geomancer.

This distance allows the narrator to view life in the village critically and to consider what he sees as necessary reforms challenging age-old traditions. The son thus gives his father”s richly embroidered clothes to the servants, an act judged revolutionary and excessive by his traditional uncle, the mayor of the village. Rejecting the class privilege attached to his birth, the narrator will thus work side by side with the help “mieux nippés que les notables” of the village. They will all share the same table at meals, and he will give his lacquered coffin inlaid with mother-of-pearl to one of the servants. He plans to establish a school open to everyone and improve agricultural efficiency using the science he learned outside the village. For the narrator, then, the circle is meant to be broken, traditional order to be destroyed, class divisions to be undermined. He sees his own past as breaking with the dictates of filial piety; going to a French school in Qui Nhon already was a sign of his lack of respect. Refusing to marry the woman chosen by his mother or to follow cultural customs are others. His revolutionary acts, fostered by an education in Qui Nhon and at the lycée in Ha Noi, will shock the village, which, personified in this novel, finds the narrator subversive, extravagant, insolent, incomprehensible, and dangerous to social and political stability.

As in Frères de sang, the narrator is torn between two worlds, his “éducation traditionnelle” and the “besoin immédiat de sortir du cercle” . Despite the strangeness he feels because of his long absence and his education abroad, he writes: “Et voici que pénétra lentement en moi l”âme du pays, une âme qui survivait à des générations de générations” . It turns out that, as in Frères de sang, his birth culture remains alive within him. In Celui qui régnera the protagonist claims to have forgotten the legends of his homeland, but he can still explain to his implied reader who the Trung sisters are and what Tet is, “de vieux réflexes.” He might feel like an outsider in the village, but he still uses a possessive adjective like “notre” to refer to Vietnamese culture and history in contrast with the “votre” used to refer to the culture and history of his interlocutor.

I would suggest that the ambiguity discernible in the first novel is even more important in Celui qui régnera. Like his counterpart in Frères de sang, this narrator writes about the border between day and night as a privileged and propitious moment: “Encore un jour écoulé. Encore une nuit. La nuit tomba timidement dans le crépuscule: moment confus. Instant confus où le chaos retentit de ses bruits de vaisselle cassée, seconde confuse où ce n”était pas tout à fait le jour, ni tout à fait la nuit. Puis, quelque chambellan céleste heurta trois coups du bout d”un bâton de vent. Et les étoiles réapparurent, et l”ordre revient. Et avec eux, les codes, les ordonnances, les règlements de police, intérieurs et extérieurs . . .” . The temporal border zone passes and social and political order is re-established, or appears to be, leaving the narrator marginalized in his twilight as both insider and outsider.

His awareness of this ambiguity leads him to reflections that appear ironic: “Non et oui! Quel instant délicieux : où commençait le bruit, où finissait le silence? L”un s”insérait dans l”autre. Ils accusaient une intensité égale, s”emboîtait l”un dans l”autre avec une précision merveilleuse! Bien malin qui les séparerait ; qui tracerait une frontière entre eux. C”est sur ces entrefaites que surgirait le plus grand homme, le plus grand siècle, le plus grand événement, le plus grand cataclysme . . . ” . The differences between yes and no, noise and silence, dream and reality, order and disorder are confounded by the arbitrariness of geographic maps, by the obscure science of the geomancer, by the use of Chinese characters and “l”engouement le quoc-ngu” , the Romanized writing system for the Vietnamese language. This lack of clarity is reflected on other levels in this text. Gender borders are crossed: a village notable, a man, would be described as “effeminé” and a “hermaphrodite,” and the male servant Sau portrayed with feminine gestures. Is a murder in Celui qui régnera a crime or an act of filial piety? Does the waterwheel represent scientific progress or the circular repetition of time?

In the end, the water brought to the village carries with it a “foreign,” outside force and irreversible changes. The king will abdicate, and his royal lands will become a republic. The narrator will be accused of murder, but when he is led away to prison, the villagers will interpret the procession as the traditional triumphant departure of the mandarin for the capital. Does his departure from his birth village resonate with his grandfather”s empty tomb, as yet another “lost soul” without psychological moorings? These contradictory and paradoxical readings are all figured in the ambivalence of the narrator himself.

In Celui qui règnera Pham Van Ky probes the dualities of his first text, Frères de sang, in order to challenge them more effectively. On the surface the two novels present a series of oppositions encapsulated in East and West, oppositions which coexist within both narrators, creating a kind of interior exile. However, their unresolved conflicts and the inaccessibility of balance and harmony no longer signify an impasse; on the contrary this lack of equishowbizvn.comrium now opens on fertile pluralities. For Pham Van Ky, writing from exile in France, cultural conflict, interior tensions, and lack of stability constituted the driving force of his textual production. He imagines two returns to Viet Nam before actually having made the trip himself, one return by a relatively passive narrator, one by a pro-active, forward-looking revolutionary. In each novel we see a narrator at the border, embodying a liminal space, one of possibility. In each case, he must examine himself in the half light of the darkening sky. New readings of Pham Van Ky that challenge the polarities and binarities of old became imperative as the sun set on the twentieth century and rose on the next.


I presented a very early version of this study at the annual meeting of the Conseil International d”Etudes Francophones in Sousse, Tunisia, June 2000, then a second paper at the 2004 Kentucky Foreign Language Conference in Lexington, and would like to thank my fellow panelists and the conference participants for their comments and questions. Let me also recognize the students in the French 7960 seminar, Spring 2002, at Louisiana State University, for pushing my readings of these novels further. In addition, I would like to thank, as always, Timothy Cook.

1. Despite his extensive body of work, Pham Van Ky has not come under much critical scrutiny until recently. Thuong Vuong-Riddick opened the discussion with two important articles published in the late 1970s. Some fifteen years later Lisa Lowe published an insightful comparative study with Tahar Ben Jelloun in a special issue of Yale French Studies. This year welcome and compelling books by Nathalie Nguyen and Karl Britto have set the standard for future work on this remarkable writer. To date, however, Nguyen Hong Nhiem”s path-breaking, book-length study remains the only one entirely devoted to Pham Van Ky. For more details, see bibliography.

2. I have summarized some of these articles in The Vietnamese Novel in French, p. 214, note 19.

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3. For more biographical and bibliographical information, please see Nguyen Hong Nhiem or The Vietnamese Novel in French.

4. I have translated the quotes from Celui qui régnera and take full responsibility for their failings. Please see bibliography for complete information on these novels.

5. See, for example, Paul Mus, Frances FitzGerald, and Le Thanh Khoi among others.

6. The narrator even addresses the West directly using the familiar second person pronoun, “tu”: “Ah, ta science, Occident! Quelle griserie! Je m”y plongeais avec délices. Je dévorais tes manuels. J”avais les mains pleines de chiffres. Les chiffres n”ont pas d”odeur, pas de couleur. Ils plaisaient à mon goût de l”abstraction.

“Puis, comme s”ils ne pouvaient me combler entièrement, je me tournais vers le monde d”où l”on découvre et approfondit la vie. J”entrepris ma propre éducation littéraire sur les quais de Paris, entre les boîtes des bouquinistes. Je suis devenu un écrivain de ton expression, Occident! J”en poussais la passion jusqu”à faire mien les problèmes de ton langage : recherches formelles ayant trait à la mélodie intellectuelle, aux sens exquis, à la résonance inconnue, aux rapprochements physiques, aux effets d”induction de tes vocables! J”ambitionnais de remonter même à la source de ton Esthétique. J”étais ce qu”on appelait “un rôdeur de confins.”

“Prévenu de l”accident de Lê Tâm par Père . . . , je regagnai l”Asie, contrarié, révolté. Contrarié à cause de cette rupture brusque avec un pays qui m”avait adopté et que j”avais adopté. Révolté contre ce serment qui engageait, non pas moi, acquis à un autre continent, mais ce que j”avais été.”

“Then, since they could not completely satisfy me, I turned to that other world where one discovers life and learns its meaning. I undertook my own literary education on the Paris quais, among the booksellers” stalls. I have become a writer in your tongue, oh West! So great was my passion for it that I adopted as my own the problems of your language: I studied systematically the intellectual rhythms of your words, their refinements of meaning, their hidden resonances, their physical similarities, their inferential power. It was my ambition to go back to the very origins of your aesthetic. I was what was called an “explorer of distant lands.”

“Told about Lê Tâm”s accident by Father . . . I returned to Asia, angry and rebellious. Angry at this sudden severance from a country which had adopted me and which I had adopted. Rebellious against an oath which bound not me, but what I had been”>.

7. See Adrien Jans, “Paris aux reflets du monde: III, —D”Angkor à Hanoi,” Le Soir de Bruxelles, 24 May 1954.

8. Nguyen Hong Nhiem, “L”Echiquier et l”antinomie je/moi comme signe et substance du conflit Occident/Extrême-Orient dans les oeuvres de Pham Van Ky,” PhD diss., University of Massachusetts-Amherst, 1982, chapter 3, 89-117.

9. This personification would foreshadow Cung Giu Nguyen”s in his novel Le Fils de la baleine (Paris: Fayard, 1956; Sherbrooke: Naaman, 1978).


Bach Mai. D”Ivoire et d”opium. Sherbrooke: Naaman, 1985.

Britto, Karl Ashoka. Disorientation: France, Vietnam, and the Ambivalence of Interculturality. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2004.

Césaire, Aimé. Cahier d”un retour au pays natal. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1971.

Condé, Maryse. Hérémakhonon. Paris: Seghers, 1988.

Denis, Claire, dir. Chocolat. Perf. Giulia Boschi, Isaach de Bankole, and François Cluzet. Orion, 1988.

Lê, Linda. Calomnies. Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1993.

———. Les Trois Parques. Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1997.

———. Voix. Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1998.

Lefèvre, Kim. Métisse blanche. Paris: Barrault, 1989.

———. Retour à la saison des pluies. Paris: Barrault, 1990.

Lim-Hing, Sharon Julie. “Vietnamese Novels in French: Rewriting Self, Gender and Nation.” Diss. Harvard University, 1993.

Lowe, Lisa. “Literary Nomadics in Francophone Allegories of Postcolonialism: Pham Van Ky and Tahar Ben Jelloun.” Post/Colonial Conditions: Exiles, Migrations, and Nomadisms in Françoise Lionnet and Ronnie Scharfman, eds., Yale French Studies 82 (1993): 43-61.

Nguyen Hong Nhiem. “L”Echiquier et l”antinomie je/moi comme signe et substance du conflit Occident/Extrême-Orient dans les oeuvres de Pham Van Ky.” Diss. University of Massachusetts-Amherst, 1982.

Nguyen, Nathalie Huynh Chau. Vietnamese Voices: Gender and Cultural Identity in the Vietnamese Francophone Novel. Dekalb, IL: Southeast Asia Publications, Northern Illinois University Monograph Series on Southeast Asia No. 6, 2004.

Pham Van Ky. Blood Brothers. Margaret Mauldin, trans., with an introduction and notes by Lucy Nguyen. New Haven: Yale Southeast Asia Studies, 1987.

———. Celui qui régnera. Paris: Grasset, 1954.

———. Frères de sang. Paris: Seuil, 1947.

Vuong-Riddick, Thuong. “Corps et acculturation selon Pham Van Ky.” Présence Francophone, no. 18, special issue (Spring 1979): 165-176.

———. “”Le Drame de l”occidentalisation dans quelques romans de Pham Van Ky.” Présence Francophone, no. 16 (Spring 1978): 141-152.

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Yeager, Jack A. The Vietnamese Novel in French: A Literary Response to Colonialism. Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1987.