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Reviewed by:
  • Paul Claudel et l'Indochine par Michel Wasserman
  • Jennifer Yee
Paul Claudel et l'Indochine. Par Michel Wasserman. (Poétiques et esthétiques XXe–XXIe siècle, 36.) Paris: Honoré Champion, 2017. 126 pp.

This study opens inauspiciously under the sign of the Catholic martyred dead: the massacre of nineteenth-century French missionaries and converts explains, apparently, why the French were obliged to take the drastic measure of invading 'Indochina'. The 'horreur des massacres [. . .] fait froid dans le dos' (p. 17) for the compassionate Michel Wasserman, who seems much less moved by suffering that does not involve Catholics. Later he quotes from Paul Claudel himself concerning the spilt 'sang des prêtres' and France's gift of Catholicism to its Indochinese colonies (p. 79), which inspire the horror and indignation of the eighty-six-year-old poet following the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Claudel's connections with 'Indochina' were in fact very limited, arising through his diplomatic postings in China, particularly in Fuzhou (South China), and in Tokyo, where he was the ambassador. He found the ruined city and temples of Angkor Wat sinister, even demonic or cursed, but visited Tonkin and Annam as part of a diplomat's tour of duty, was duly fêted, and drew the authorized conclusions about the population's perfectly submissive attitude, the economic potential of the colony, and the achievements of France's benevolent rule. The limited part played by the Indochinese colonies in Claudel's thinking is one of the main problems of the present study, which tells us more about Claudel's relations with China and Japan than about the 'Indochine' of the title. In fact there are few surviving texts by Claudel focusing on the area—a prose poem on Angkor Wat was lost in a fire—and the study draws on scanty extracts from his professional diplomatic writings and his journal, as well as briefly mentioning a short prose poem written as late as 1948 in which Vietnam is figured as a 'femme jaune' who should not think she has the right to divorce the man who has so bizarrely married her because their union is made sacred by the spilt blood of priests (pp. 105–06). We do gain a sense, albeit fragmentary, of Claudel's life as a diplomat. He manages the recruitment of Chinese 'coolies' as indentured labourers to be sent to Annam and Cambodia and, with terrible mortality rates, to Réunion and Madagascar. He triumphantly negotiates a reduction in tariffs to encourage Japanese purchases of rice from the Indochinese colonies, at a time when he also notes that some Annamites are so poor they have lost the habit of eating and it is almost impossible to find an Annamite man weighing more than 40 kg (p. 73). One cannot help but wonder why exporting rice was the priority, but the question does not seem to have occurred to Claudel, or Wasserman. On the positive side, this account does succeed in conveying a sense of how France sought to use its Indochinese colonies to further its economic and financial interests in Japan and China. Its narrow remit—to trace Claudel's relations with Indochina—prevents it from giving any sense [End Page 333] of the broader context of French colonialism in Indochina or of Claudel's literary response to Asia.

Jennifer Yee
Christ Church, Oxford
...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-2931
Print ISSN
0016-1128
Pages
pp. 333-334
Launched on MUSE
2019-05-17
Open Access
No
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