restricted access The Vietnamese Novel in French: A Literary Response to Colonialism (review)
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Reviewed by
Jack A. Yeager. The Vietnamese Novel in French: A Literary Response to Colonialism. Hanover: UP of New England, 1987. 251 pp. $27.50.

For Americans accustomed to thinking of Vietnam only as a dramatic stage for their own cultural experience, Jack Yeager's new study is a welcome complication and corrective. The subject here is Vietnamese Francophone literature, twenty-five novels in French by Vietnamese writers published between 1920 and 1969, a corpus the author defines as "neither fully Vietnamese nor fully French. They are rather a literary hybrid that stands alone and is in this sense self-defining." Although Yeager's critical subject is little known and perhaps of limited interest for a general audience, the larger questions inherent in both the novels and his own methodology are of great importance for both literary critics and cultural historians.

Appraising the works as sociohistorical documents and individual aesthetic expressions, the author examines the recent master-slave relationship produced by French colonial incursion in Vietnam from 1862 to 1954, offering the Francophone novels as texts that dramatize the confrontation between a traditional society and language and a powerful, intruding colonial culture. Befitting his interdisciplinary project, Yeager bifurcates his discussion into "Contexts" and "Analyses": the first section establishing for the reader the cultural and linguistic history of traditional Vietnam, the latter providing close readings that not only elucidate the novelists' particular aesthetic projects but also highlight their status as cultural responses to French colonialism.

Not surprisingly, Yeager's method—a mix of social, historical, and artistic impulses—reflects the very tensions and irresolutions readily discoverable in the literature. His descriptive and definitional operations are largely successful. He does establish convincingly that this discrete, grouping of works is "the place, the exotic site—a demilitarized zone or Cocteau's no man's land—where the cultures of Viet Nam and France collide." He is also careful not to simplify or to falsify the cultural news within the fictional transactions to create a tidy consensus. He recognizes that, on one hand, the novelists might be seen as cultural collaborators in art, but Yeager is careful to isolate the complex, contradictory reasons why the novelists wrote and published in French: a cultural imperative to forge modern literary forms; the desire within the slave to impress the master, the attempt to appear "civilized"; most importantly, the use of the master's tongue to convince the French, in the colony and at home, of the integrity of traditional Vietnam. Both a symbol of servitude and a weapon against colonial hegemony, Vietnamese Francophone literature is the novel as cultural ambiguity.

Although they most certainly did not read them, one wonders what American policy makers during our involvement in Vietnam might have garnered from these novels. Nguyen Phan Long's Le Roman de Mademoiselle Lys (1921), for instance, would have offered them a symbolic representation of Vietnamese ambivalence concerning traditional Confucian society and colonial influence, Cung Giu Nguyen's Le Fils de la baleine (1956) would have dramatized for them the traditional autonomy of the village. And Ly Thu Ho's Au milieu du carrefour (1969) would have been an education in art of how the strategic hamlet program alienated the Vietnamese villagers as it forced them from their ancestral lands.

Yeager does demonstrate in The Vietnamese Novel in French how novels may [End Page 752] be read as cultural documents, but he also leaves persistent questions unanswered. Who was the audience within Vietnam for the Francophone works? Did the novels catalyze attitude or behavior within discrete political or social groups, or were they harmless registers interesting only to social historians? The author argues that "history validates these texts; these texts also validate history." Yeager works well within the individual works of the "Analyses" section. The reader would like more excursions outside them, for, to apply Marianne Moore's key aesthetic dictum to the novels, colonial Vietnam was an imaginary pond with real toads in it. Yeager's assertion of validating reciprocity deserves more attention.

Thomas Myers
University of Oklahoma