lundi 30 mars 2009

Vietnam - 26 February 2008

I read The Princess and the Fisherman in less than a day – a page-turner, as they say. It wasn’t bad. Not brilliant, but not bad. Some Mills-and-Boon intrigue, at first: the heroine is a shy girl, secretive, without friends, but then a confident and seductive man approaches. He knows how to see her true beauty, but thinks of her as a sister, etc. Then things turn dark: he mysteriously disappears, leaving her a strange notebook. She learns that the life of this man is, in fact, far more difficult than she could have believed. All of this built around ethnic confusion, demanding parents, a conniving grandmother, and the Vietnamese tale that serves as a counterpoint (can I say “counter-framework”?). The book works well enough, formally: a story within a story, elegant sentences. More than anything, the book made me think.

Ethically speaking, the text and I are miles apart. Its main character is a proud melancholic. She constantly repeats three Japanese words (that I’ve forgotten) meaning: “the infinite melancholy of things.” Even in her adolescence the heroine is saddened by the idea of a lost childhood, by an unrequited love story, by a kiss never exchanged. In short, she’s a young old woman who sees her life in retrospect, apart from one great moment as she listens to the piano, feels uplifted by love, and becomes fully embodied to... Für Elise.

Alongside this melancholy there’s a kind of diffused Buddhism. When her grandmother consoles her by saying “in another life,” she means it literally – not in the above-and-beyond, in paradise, but another life on this earth. For ultimately the lovers seek each other from one body to the next, over successive reincarnations, and sometimes cannot find each other, but continue their search. And running parallel to these ever-returning spirits there is the cult of the dead, ancestor worship, and the anguish of the grandmother who has not correctly buried her husband. A strange mix of everlasting life (we can relax and take our time, we shall return) and immense loss (we lose more and more, every second, we leave beautiful moments behind us). In short, the antithesis of the existential position that Christianity adopts.

It is also marked by the implacable strength of fate. The tale that forms the counterpoint of the story is placed under the sign of destiny: two orphans consult an oracle, it predicts that the brother will marry the sister, and the prediction is realised. But the brother first attempts to kill his sister, to prove the oracle’s falseness (he is thus responsible for the initial rebellion, unlike Oedipus), then learns the truth by chance (not seeking to know, like Oedipus). Minh allows for some uncertainty in the story of her heroine and Nam, but there is nonetheless the impression that a kind of destiny is behind it. And the coldness of the characters is the consequence of this, of the destiny that acts by itself, that completes what it creates. Faced with this, it’s better to adopt a calm and detached attitude. The stoicism of Minh, then, is like that of old – noble resignation faced with an implacable lot. Contrast the panic of Julien, that lost
fugitive of Berlin Traffic. The second of the two pagan responses to the world’s disorder.

Should we see in this tale a literary genre that belongs to Vietnam? Where destiny holds the reins. Where determinism acts openly, through arbitrary and chance actions. Where nobody is responsible for anything, because everything is scripted in advance. Where the only possible choice is to enjoy oneself, or to suffer, before the spectacle of the world. A mode of existence that is aesthetic, before anything else.

We might amuse ourselves by contrasting the Vietnam of Minh with that of Stallone. Rambo IV opens with a scene of military cruelty, then Stallone hunts a serpent in the jungle. Cruelty of people and of nature, the aesthetic of horror – projected by the West onto Asia, where the horror is practiced, perhaps not just aesthetically. Another Julien said to me: “I would have loved to fight in Vietnam,” when we were children – “over there, they were real men.” Rambo, man of strength, but also the region of Asia, until recently, dominated by strength and arms – a place of the right. Is this because it’s between two worlds, between China and India?

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