Recourse to History

The French writer Éric Vuillard’s latest book, Une sortie honorable, opens with a brief lesson in colonial vocabulary. In a travel guide to French Indochina published in 1923, after an advertisement for a Hanoi-based gunsmith, vacationers find a list of phrases to help them communicate with the locals: ‘go find a rickshaw, speed up, slow down, turn right, turn left, turn around, put up the hood, take down the hood, wait for me here for a moment, drive me to the bank, to the jewellers, to the café, to the police station, to the plantation.’ The list of commands is not only testament to the brazen arrogance of colonial tourists. As Vuillard put it in a recent interview, it displays a ‘grammar of servitude’. The vocabulary ultimately ‘traces a geography of conquest: the bank, the police station, the plantation’, key sites in the colonial topography Vuillard’s book outlines, which also includes political assembly halls, military camps and television studios. Together, they make up what Vuillard – drawing on Marcel Mauss – refers to as the ‘total social fact’ of colonialism.

Une sortie honorable draws on many such sources in its account of the final years of the French occupation. Its narrative is broadly oriented around two pivotal defeats: the Battle of Cao Bằng in 1950, which marked the beginning of the end, and the fall of Diên Biên Phu in 1954. The exception is the opening and concluding chapters. The former recounts a disturbing visit by colonial labour inspectors to a Michelin rubber plantation outside of Saigon in 1928; the latter Saigon’s fall in April 1975. The book’s tragic-ironic title is taken from a directive given by the President of the French Council of Ministers, René Mayer, to General Henri Lavare upon the latter’s nomination to take over military action in 1953: ‘The situation in Indochina is quite simply disastrous,’ Mayer confides. ‘The war is as good as lost. The best we can hope for is an honourable exit.’

Mayer and Lavare are among the many figures that people what Vuillard intends as a ‘little comédie humaine, with planters, politicians, generals, bankers, all sorts of characters.’ Vuillard’s portraiture is highly caricatural, leading critics to reach for Rabelais and Daumier in comparison. Une sortie honorable goes to some lengths for instance to mock Édouard Herriot, who presided over a National Assembly meeting in the days following Cao Bằng and is depicted as a lumbering turkey, while, in the final moments of the siege on Diên Biên Phu, General de Castries is shown hiding in his barracks and shitting in his helmet (‘Don’t shoot me!’ he is said to have cried when he was discovered). The personal pasts of politicians, officers, and industrialists are plundered for family ties, nepotism, and remnants of a dynastic order which binds them together as a class or, as Vuillard puts it, a ravenous body:

We see clearly that we’re always walking in the same paths, that we’re always tying the same threads around the same puppets, and these are not the iron wires binding famished wrists, they are golden threads connecting and reconnecting the same names, the same interests, and we retrace endlessly the same nerves, the same muscles, in order that in the end all blood abounds in the same heart.

Heroes are rather few, besides the implicit, yet only indirectly rendered collective protagonist of the Việt Minh. There is Pierre Mendès France, whose ineffectual assembly floor speech against the war Vuillard portrays favourably (he would, in fact, go on to negotiate withdrawal as Prime Minister after Dien Bien Phu), and the communist deputy Abderrahmane-Chréif Djemad, who rails against France’s sacrificial treatment of Algerian, Moroccan and other colonial soldiers in the war, only to be ignored. But heroes are not the point of Une sortie honorable: the characters who interest Vuillard most are those pulling the strings from the banks, boardrooms and political assemblies.

The action of Une sortie honorable is largely split between discussions in the halls of power in Paris and their disastrous effects in Vietnam. By juxtaposing the rich and powerful in the metropole with the oppressed in Indochina, Vuillard hopes to evoke what he calls ‘the very heart of the colonial enterprise’. In order ‘to paint a more complete, more terrible portrait’ of life in Vietnam, he has explained, he had ‘to try to hold together two worlds’, ‘these two sides of social life’: ‘one of forced labour, violent treatment, tortured coolies, and another of government assembly meetings and hushed board of directors gatherings… to put Assommoir with L’Argent, Coupeau in front of Saccard, the manual labourer next to the banker.’

For Vuillard, literature has the power to connect these seemingly disparate worlds into an intelligible whole, and this has been the ambition of his own writing of the past decade. In both its historical subject matter and formal experimentation this has represented something of a departure from his early work. Born in Lyon in 1968, Vuillard has written eleven books (as well as directed three films). The style of his first works – Le Chasseur (1999), Bois Vert (2002), Tohu (2005) – is poetic and allusive, but Vuillard eventually abandoned this mode with his first properly historical literary work, Conquistadors (2009), an account of Pizarro’s conquest of Peru. Seven short works – ‘récits’ as they are labelled– have since appeared in quick succession. ‘Récit’ has no direct translation in English, but often denotes formally self-referential literary works, in which the act of writing is foregrounded, and the reader is not allowed to forget the constructed nature of the text. This describes Vuillard’s style quite precisely. Its effect is rather like being led by the hand from one historical scene to the next, with Vuillard a whispering guide pointing out keyholes and back entrances. Vuillard describes his technique as ‘a manner of indicating that throughout literary history, it’s not fiction which dominates, but reality’. Or put otherwise, in the ‘historical récit’, literary form provides a means to bring history to the fore.

The works that Vuillard has produced since this historical turn have been remarkably wide-ranging. La Bataille d’occident (2012) and Congo (2012) concerned, respectively, the vested interests behind World War I and the 1884 Berlin Conference and its aftermath in the Congo. These were followed by La Tristesse de la terre (2014), which explored the protracted dispossession and near-extermination of American Indians, refracted through the life of the buffalo poacher-turned-showman Buffalo Bill. Next Vuillard immersed himself in the origins of the French Revolution in 14 Juillet (2016), retelling the siege of Bastille from below. After that came the L’Ordre du jour (2017), which dramatizes the role of bankers and industrialists in Hitler’s rise, and then in Germany’s occupation of Austria in 1938, and which was awarded the Prix Goncourt. Vuillard’s last book, La Guerre des pauvres (2019), which was shortlisted for the International Booker prize – bringing him increased visibility in the anglosphere – is devoted to the peasant revolt led by Thomas Müntzer in 16th century Southern Germany. Each of these books aims to illuminate structural relationships of social inequality and oppression in what Vuillard terms the ‘history of domination’. (This concern also animates his public engagements, as in recent articles and interviews in support of NUPES (in Libération), striking workers at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (in L’Humanité), and against the extradition of the Italian militant Vincenzo Vecchi (in the Nouvel Observateur.)

As a critic from the French journal Ballast observed, Vuillard’s oeuvre contains two general tendencies: accounts of ‘revolts led by an anonymous or unknown peoples (14 Juilliet, La Guerre des pauvres)’ and stories about ‘the criminal detachment with which rulers and industrialists make decisions that lead to the worst violence and conflicts (Conquistadors, Congo, L’Ordre du jour).’ To this we might add a third tendency: a commitment to both staging and dismantling a presentation of history as spectacle. In La Tristesse de la terre, for instance, the line between reality and performance becomes blurred as Buffalo Bill, Sitting Bull and others play themselves in the revisionist ‘Wild West Show’ which travelled through the US and Europe staging (and rewriting) old west battles. And in Une sortie honorable – arguably the finest synthesis of the three tendencies – a central chapter is dedicated to a farcical restaging of General Jean De Lattre De Tassigny’s appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press in 1951 during his American tour in search of military aid. Vuillard is also drawn to theatre as a metaphor when discussing what happens ‘behind the scenes’ of history in boardrooms and backchannels. ‘Imagine actors who never return to being themselves,’ he writes of a meeting of the directors of the Bank of Indochina. ‘They would eternally play their roles.’

How does Vuillard select his subject matter? He insists that he does not make an a priori decision to take up a particular historical episode. Rather, his works grow out of chance encounters with stories that disturb him: ‘I read, I watch films, I watch documentaries, photos, and it happens that I encounter something which unsettles me and gives me the incentive to write.’ The stimulus for Une sortie honorable was a 43-second film by the Frères Lumière titled ‘Annamite Children Gathering Sapèques in front of the Ladies’ Pagoda’ (1899–1900). In the film two women in white dresses laugh as they toss sapèques (French colonial currency) to a group of Vietnamese children in rags, who scramble to catch the coins, until one child stops short and turns to gaze sternly into the camera. As Vuillard put it, ‘he gazes across time’. The child’s disquieting gaze ‘signals something very profound’ and ‘permits us to grasp the colonial unconscious.’

‘One always writes what one doesn’t know’, says Vuillard, ‘one plunges into obscurity.’ Some of the materials that informed and inspired Une sortie honorable find their way explicitly into the final work. Such curation is inherently political. Vuillard has been repeatedly criticized for the tendentiousness and less than impartial tone of his historical récits. In a review of L’Ordre du jour for the New York Review of Books, the historian Robert Paxton criticized the book for its explanatory shortcomings as a historical narrative. Vuillard, he observed, has chosen ‘his details not for their explicative value’ but for literary effect. ‘He likes to heighten the impression of absurdity’ and his ‘delight in irony seems to have outweighed exactitude’. Paxton concludes by suggesting that Vuillard may eventually fall into the obscurity of earlier Prix Goncourt winners, ‘a procession of largely forgotten names’.

Vuillard’s response to Paxton’s review (and its ‘brutal conclusion’) is worth reading: he accuses Paxton of falsely supposing ‘the existence of a distant, neutral way of writing’, the alleged reserve of history; meanwhile literature ‘ought to behave itself and keep to the art of the novel’. But it is elsewhere, in an interview published in the journal Le vent se lève, that he elaborates his position most clearly:

At its core, recourse to History is necessary in a world where hegemonic discourse is in appearance so depoliticized, so neutral, so objective, and where all literature which claims to be nonpartisan is in reality an official, servile production. In such a harsh context, writing can only be political in order to be truly literary.

And, then, more to the point: ‘Writing cannot be neutral.’

Read on: Pierre Vilar, ‘History in the Making’, NLR 136.