Only intricate lines and scarves of air between us
Sways (Tangages)
Author: Christophe Robert
Published on: 11/23/2017 8:08:37 PM

Christophe Robert translates from the original French of Linda Le

In Exil, Saint-John Perse issued this invitation, “And now is the time, O Poet, / to state your name / your birthplace and your people” (“Et c’est l’heure, ô Poète, / de décliner ton nom, / ta naissance et ta race”). Armand Robin’s verses in “Sans pays” (Stateless), a poem from Monde d’une voix (World of a Voice), seem to echo in reply, “I will remain for all time a strange stranger: I will have spent my days eradicating my life” (“Je serai pour toute ère un étrange étranger: J’aurai passé mes jours à supprimer ma vie”). This last statement could be an epigraph for my narratives, where protagonists are like dissociated molecules and yet form nodes of resistance, and where questions of ethnic, group or national belonging do not overshadow the underlying reflection on being human and being transplanted.

As I stage them in writing, when my transplanted characters engage in anamnesis and recollection they claim the right, even if not asserted in the end, to scratch out parts of their biography. Living in a no man’s land after crossing demarcation lines and duplicating themselves as Hermes-like figures bringing messages from elsewhere to their adopted land, these transplants do not go so far as renouncing their origins – like would-be apostates preaching a dubious incorporation into a new ensemble that, however cemented by language, is in no way more homogeneous than the community they originated from. If these transplants are my interpreters, it is as xenophiles. If they embody any philosophy, it is a Prometheism. If they have any religion, it is eclectic. If they isolate themselves, it is to peer deep into themselves and soak in diverse influences while preserving some unity. If they swim between two streams, they steer clear of becoming classifiable. If they defy expectations, it is in the hope of breaking the mold. As embodied dichotomies, they aim to create rich new combinations out of a binary compound. Though displaying clashing ideas, they still show some cohesive energy. If identity of spirit links them with artists from all corners of the globe, these identities are like so many passports for cosmopolitanism. If they are free particles, the better to act as liaisons, enabling communication between sealed-off universes.   

Sent to a French school from a very early age, I grew up as a foreigner in Vietnam, knowing little of its literature, its folk tales, and reading French authors more often than Chinese classics. I was nursed by Perrault’s fairy tales, I was eager to use French turns of phrase, my thought patterns received the imprint of Western culture, and my brain gradually stored a small part of the knowledge pertaining to European civilization. My father, a practicing Catholic and assiduous reader of the Bible, had wanted to transmit his passion for Vietnamese poetry to my sisters and me. But my staunchly Francophile mother decreed that her children would have a better future if taught the idiom of a faraway land. Her husband dreamed of Hong Kong, and she of the French Riviera. He worshipped Nguyễn Du, the great Vietnamese poet, she swore by De Gaulle. She won the argument: her four children were entrusted to professors at the Lycée Colette and later Lycée Marie Curie. The raging war was telling her that we would have to emigrate one day and leave this continent for new horizons. At home, we spoke a strange language, a mixture of Vietnamese and French. I was increasingly ill at ease when I had to utter long sentences in my native tongue; I was struggling to decipher the novels of our famous authors but devoured works published in Paris; I looked to be absolument moderne in the steps of Rimbaud, whom I was discovering at the time. I had no idea what being modern meant in my case, a high school girl immune to Confucianism but already fascinated by such figures as Cassandra, Electra, and Antigone. I only knew that I felt torn apart: I was acquiring new learning which was turning me into a different person, but I was struggling with this difference; I was digging an abyss between myself, tempted by all that the West was flashing at me, and my father who was deeply attached to his country. Though I kept telling myself that I would find salvation by clearing a solitary path, by breaking from all traditions, I couldn’t decide decisively so as to avoid the possibility of turning back.  

For me the sun rose in the West, but in my father’s eyes it was the East that offered the possibility of renewal (ressourcement). I was unlearning what I knew of Asia, I wanted to learn more about Surrealism, Futurism, Dadaism, and other innovative movements. I was yearning for what Victor Segalen had called a feeling for the Diverse (le Divers): my exotisme consisted in my taste for everything that was at my antipodes. I was studying relentlessly to overcome my schoolmates; I affirmed myself by displaying my originality, and mine came from my systematic use of the imperfect subjunctive tense and the obsolete slang I gleaned in Victor Hugo’s writings. The more my curiosity for Europe and its ancient ramparts was growing, the more I felt I was distancing myself from my father, and this was tearing me apart long before I exiled myself and, against my will, left him behind in Saigon; already then it created remorse, an unspeakable sense of betrayal.

I was still adolescent, I tended to shoot down what I had just worshipped, and I changed opinions at whim; I was only consistent in my continuing interest for French writers’ works. But wasn’t I borrowing clothes that would now restrict my movements? By rushing to escape from the narrow frame in which I moved about, wasn’t I locking myself up in a dilemma that condemned me to oath-breaking and mimesis? Wasn’t I violating my oath to be fully devoted to my father? Weren’t the phrases I was appropriating turning into counterfeits that further singled me out when I called them my own? I was split, half fish, half fowl; I looked Asian, but I felt I was in my element only when losing myself in my exploration of the traps and enigmas of French grammar. I was not really westernizing myself, and still I navigated in such a way that each day I found myself further from my home harbor.

I only understood this as an adult, when I realized that against all odds some Vietnamese language fragments kept surfacing in my recollections. My readings of works by Cioran and others fed my appetite for writings that transcend attachment to a native place (terroir). I only venerated universalist literature, where according to Claudio Magris, one breaks down false boundaries and creates others to block the way of Evil. Once I lived in Paris, and after long hesitation and false starts began to write fiction, I was careful not to put blinders on, and I rescued whole international crews of the shipwrecked in my fragile skiffs. The French language was not an anchor of misericord, the last recourse of a refugee: in my lack of humility I was confident that I had made French mine and could rival the strangeness of other natives who like me turned toward dreamed-up lands, far from their birth places. Memories from Vietnam would dim and then reappear, I was oscillating between two opposite stances: not to stir the ashes of the past or instead to evoke bygone events; I attempted a Siamese twin transplant: I wrote stories of uprooted people by injecting in flashes of mythology; I gave form to characters that could have said, as Benjamin Fondane in “The Emigrant Song”: “We are from no land / our earth is what sways / and our haven the rolling waves” (“Nous ne sommes d’aucun pays / notre terre c’est ce qui tangue / notre havre c’est le roulis”). I was trying to push back all limits; it involved disruption and vertigo. I was paying the price for my will to remain in the fringes, torn between repudiating the nostalgia that would take me back to my Saigon years and reactivating disturbances from extreme introversion that triggered the return of the repressed. But eventually I tore the inner walls of my personal theater – peopled by my doubles, clandestine passengers brought to life fraudulently – in order to open the door to individual personalities created ex nihilo. These sometimes draw their substance from territories that retain traces of Vietnam; most of the time they come from nowhere and are only products of my imagination. My weakness is that I defend the novelistic (le romanesque), and I have not yet elucidated the mystery of the transmutation of sways, tear-ups and mourning into the words one tries to etch in stone with such furious obstinacy.

Tangages, Linh Le, Vietnam, Le destin du lotus. Riveneuve Continents (Revue des littératures de langue Francaise), Issue 12, Fall 2010, p.20-24. Translated with permission by the author.