Book Review

Eric Vuillard: Colonial War under the Scalpel

The author of The Order of the Day, winner of the 2017 Prix Goncourt, and The War of the Poor, longlisted for the International Booker Prize, has just published An Honorable Exit in the United States. Offering an in-depth French perspective on the final years of the First Indochina War (1946-1954), he highlights the ties between politics and business, cemented by visceral racism and shared financial interests.
© Julie Glassberg

On September 16, 1951, General de Lattre de Tassigny, the French commander in chief in Indochina, was invited on the highly popular American talk show Meet the Press, broadcast by some 40 channels. Speaking with senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., he asked for material assistance (and not human reinforcements), insisting in broken English that the Korean War and the one fought by France in Indochina shared a common goal: to defeat communism. In this scene, placed at the center of the narrative, Eric Vuillard describes the minute details of the event from behind the scenes: the French military officer sweating and shaking, stumbling over every word, and the linguistic and diplomatic superiority of the U.S. Republican senator, suddenly reducing France and Europe to the status of a subjugated province. Above all, the book shines a light on the taboos of colonial war – a term that no one wanted to use.

As in Eric Vuillard’s other books, it all comes down to the way he orders the facts, scrutinizes the historical backdrop, and brings to life major events by focusing on specific characters. Looking back over the last four years of the First Indochina War, including the disastrous Battle of Cao Bang in 1950, the winning strategy used by the Viet Minh at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, and the withdrawal of French troops in 1954, the author hones in on the negotiations that led France to step back while attempting to secure “an honorable exit” to avoid humiliation. From the rubber plantations where rag-wearing workers committed suicide in droves to behind the closed doors of the French ministries, he maps out the alliances between the political and industrial worlds, incestuous relations within the nobility and the bourgeoisie designed to retain power and wealth. Exercising restraint when discussing the poor and the defeated, his language takes on 1950s slang and becomes more trivial, as if his writing embodied the disdain and vulgarity of the racist and antisemitic political and financial caste.

As we know all too well, the French were replaced by the Americans, who continued the war. In total, the conflict lasted for 30 years and cost the lives of four million people, including 3.6 million Vietnamese.

An Honorable Exit by Eric Vuillard, translated from French by Mark Polizzotti, Other Press, 2023. 160 pages, 23.99 dollars.

Article published in the June 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.