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  • Vietnam and the Colonial Condition of French Literature by Leslie Barnes
  • Rebecca Loescher (bio)
Leslie Barnes. Vietnam and the Colonial Condition of French Literature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014.

Grounded in the belief that “neither cultural identity nor cultural production can be given as pure or homogeneous” (2), Leslie Barnes’s book Vietnam and the Colonial Condition of French Literature explores the impact colonial contact in Vietnam had—and continues to have—on literary production in the Hexagon. Re-examining the works of canonical French authors André Malraux and Marguerite Duras, alongside contemporary Franco-Vietnamese author Linda Lê, Barnes links shifts in the modern French novel with the political, linguistic, and psychic realities of the colonial experience. In so doing, Barnes endeavors to “account for the multidirectional nature of intercultural exchange” (8), thus demonstrating, through one case study, that the French canon has always already been “othered” or “displaced” from within. This critical approach, which fruitfully combines close reading and historico-contextual accounts, proves both innovative and valuable: not only for its recognition of the colonial influences little accounted for in Malraux and Duras scholarship, but also for its explicit questioning of canon formation and the subsequent division between “French” and “Francophone” literatures.

After having presented her methodological approach and highlighted the dominant practical, historical, and ideological components of canon formation, [End Page 1015] Barnes turns in parts 1, 2, and 3 to her analyses of Malraux’s, Duras’s, and Lê’s œuvres. Chapters 1 and 2 focus on Malraux’s work, the first centering exclusively on the La Tentation de l’Occident (1926), which Barnes reads as informed by the literary tradition of exoticism as well as the post-Great War mal de siècle. To illustrate her thesis, Barnes first discusses the primary characteristics of exotic and colonial novels, then takes up Malraux’s specific exploitation of these tropes. In her view, La Tentation is noteworthy because it simultaneously makes use of and revolutionizes such tropes, as the gaze here pivots from the Western man’s view of the Other to “the Western man … revealed to himself through the mediation of the Other’s perspective” (35). Following Barnes’s reading, Malraux’s disdain of colonial degeneracy—also manifest in his journalistic publications—is exemplary of the larger, post-World War I existential crisis: that is, the “opposition between cultures [is] an extension of the opposition between man and his own inner existence” (63). Barnes further explores this premise in chapter 2, bringing Malraux’s later texts into dialogue with other Franco-Indochinese colonial-exotic narratives published around the same time. Here, she examines in more detail the specificities of Malraux’s conception of the “unknown.” Illustrating her argument through a number of compelling examples, she concludes that Malraux turns the “impenetrable Other”—a fundamental aspect of the colonial-exotic text—inside out: otherness makes an about-face, reversed backwards as the opacity of the self. Hence Barnes’s contention that the author’s “existentialist vision emerges from within the imperialist ideology” (94).

In part 2 of her study, Barnes investigates Duras’s œuvre, exploring the author’s experience of liminality—a white European living in poverty, young Marguerite conforms neither to colonial society nor to the indigenous population—as formative of her somewhat jarring prose. Rather than approach Duras’s oeuvre in terms of the New Novel or écriture féminine, then, Barnes opts to examine the linguistic and structural aspect of her texts, reading them as illustrative of cultural métissage. To do so, she first continues the thematic analysis employed in part 1, highlighting the political stakes inherent in Un barrage contre le Pacifique. She argues, in effect, that this novel constitutes a “realist attack against the colonial state” (119) articulated in a “declaration that would never again be so clear” (128). For Duras’s subsequent texts abandon the realist tradition, a move Barnes understands as a switch from “political content … to the politically subversive potential of … form” (137). Building on Pierre Bourdieu’s work on the speech act and the linguistic habitus, as well as Édouard Glissant’s notion of métissage, Barnes examines Duras’s linguistic idiosyncrasy as illustrative of...


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