Monday, June 17, 2024

A Memory of Colonialism

May, 1954, Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam (Le Monde)

French colonialism in Vietnam is currently being remembered in the obituary of an “angel” — the once-famous nurse who tended the French troops during the last stand of the French colonial occupation of Vietnam. This was the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The withdrawal of the French after this battle was the end of nearly 70 years of French colonialism in Indochina (as it was formerly known). It also led to the next Vietnam war, fought by the anticommunist forces in the south of the country, supported by the Americans, in opposition to the Communist forces of the North under the rule of Ho Chi Minh. Americans old enough to remember this war may also think of the last stand of the American forces in 1975 — a long time after the final French defeat. 

The headline of the obituary in the New York Times:

Geneviève de Galard, French ‘Angel’ of Dien Bien Phu, Dies at 99

A nurse, she tended to the wounded as the French were under fateful attack by Viet Minh forces in 1954. Hailed in France and the U.S., she was given a ticker-tape parade down Broadway

This New York Times article (link) summarizes the battle where the French army made its last stand along with the long life of the woman who personified the spirit of that struggle. I have vague memories of those headlines, probably from Life Magazine which for Americans was the major source of images of the news of the world at that time. 

In the Times obituary, I learned about a very interesting part of this story that I had never heard before. For years, it was believed that the “angel” had been the only woman at the scene of the battle, where she bravely tended and nursed the hideously wounded French soldiers. That was a myth. Here’s the real story from the obituary:

“Dien Bien Phu, like other French military bases, housed not one but two ‘military field brothels’ — army-maintained bordellos that in this case sheltered dozens of Vietnamese and North African women. During the siege, with artillery raining down, the women ‘converted themselves into nurse-assistants,’ a military doctor, Jean-Marie Madelaine, wrote in a letter unearthed by Le Monde, ‘volunteering for dangerous water transport, getting rid of the garbage, the vomit, the excrement, the bandages dripping with blood and pus, giving water to those who no longer could use their arms, giving their hand to the dying. They were admirable.’

“Traces of the women have been effaced by history and a French military establishment not eager to remember them; the women don’t appear in a memoir by Ms. Galard.”

The first page of many in the Life Magazine coverage of the final battle in 1954.

Reading a Book About This History

As it happens, just as I read this obituary invoking the 1954 French Vietnam war, I have also been reading a book about the background of this very struggle — a strange fictionalized biography of Ho Chi Minh titled Faraway the Southern Sky (translated from the French and published May 21, 2024)The title is taken from a line in a poem by Ho Chi Minh, who was a poet and many other things in his early life long before he became the leader of Viet Nam. 

The author of this book, Joseph Andras, writes somewhat confusingly in the second person; that is, the book seems to be addressed to the reader, or at least the reader is made out to be the actor of the book. After a while of reading, however, it’s clear that the “you” in the novel is not the reader, but the author himself — or a fictitious narrator of the work. This quirk of writing serves to create a strange distance between “you” the reader and the voice that is addressing not you but himself and describing his own action. In a way this makes it challenging to be sure just what the subject of the book is, but let’s assume that the subject really is Ho Chi Minh and the early history of the struggle against colonialism, capitalism, and European dominance of the third world.

What is this action that this somewhat alienated “you” takes? The author/narrator is walking around the areas of Paris where Ho Chi Minh, then known under many pseudonyms, lived and worked for several years from around 1916 to 1920. How many years? That’s a mystery, like almost everything about Ho Chi Minh’s early life — except that he was increasingly active in the Communist, Socialist, and anti-Colonial movements, and eventually moved on to a more political life, especially living in Russia which was developing its own socialism. His early days were isolated — as in these passages:

“Cramped lodgings shared with a Tunisian man by the name of Moktar, an anticolonial militant who worked at an ordnance factory. Nguyên’s [Ho Chi Minh’s name at the time] documents weren’t in order; he steered clear of neighbors, hiding between his four walls for fear of running into law enforcement. These first few weeks, he wouldn’t turn on the light or touch the stove in the absence of his comrade, who, upon his return from drudgery, would prepare Nguyên’s meals for the next day. The apartment was humid, walls wept, wind blew between doors and windows. The typesetter would stop by and read the day’s headlines to him; they played cards, then drank wine when night fell—white? red? no matter—until the Tunisian returned.” (p. 17)

“A book published in Hanoi, that you in fact acquired there, shows his business card: ‘Photographic Portrait-Enlargements.’ The address that detains you today appears on it, along with his name, spelled thus: ‘Nguyên Aï Quâc.’ … The young man lived on the first floor; a room, a bed, a table, a dresser, an oil lamp, a wash bowl; no electricity, a window with swing shutters—he had to stretch his neck just to see a bit of sun or moon. The neighbors hung their laundry upon taut clotheslines, he washed his outside, and to his visitors offered jasmine tea and green vegetables cooked with soy. Not too hard to imagine him here.” (p. 66)

The reader is assumed to know the last part of Ho Chi Minh’s life when he was the leader of the revolution in Vietnam and the dictator of North Vietnam during the two Vietnam wars (French and American). The book looks forward and back, in a somewhat abstract way; for example:

“You would almost feel it, this pride, in reading reports from the meeting a century later: you need only think of the world war, barely two years behind, of letters from infantrymen hoping that their feet would freeze so they could be evacuated, of the eyes of mangy horses wasted by the gases, of the hoofs of mules sinking in the mud, of messenger dogs caught in barbed wire, of widows left without even God to talk to, all of that the single, solitary fault of the powerful (you wrote ‘of the rich,’ first, and perhaps one shouldn’t balk at such Christlike simplicity); you need only think of women bartering their bodies in the obscurity of moist bedrooms, of smoked-out indigènes, of black-skinned amputees, of girls in Tongking pinned under foreigners’ genitalia, of kings, queens, magnates, usurers, speculators, shits in muslin and ascot ties, manure in gold-leafed makeup; you need only catch a glimpse of the gardens of great palaces and those there, in their millions, who were told things couldn’t be any other way, property owners and beggars, that’s how it is, such is life; there, for sure, is all you need to measure the exact weight of these three words, world proletarian revolution. You have reasons to hold Lenin at a distance from your heart, but you know why, at this very instant, the room could only erupt in raucous applause.” (p. 45)

The reviewer in the Washington Post (link) points out that besides the young Ho Chi Minh, the real subject of the novel is Paris: both the Paris of today and the Paris of 100 years ago:

“As the walk unfolds, it becomes clear that Paris is as much the protagonist of the story as Ho. Political ruptures (past, present and future) that occurred steps away from the apartments the future Vietnamese leader reportedly occupied haunt and shape the city — the Paris commune of 1871, the massacre of Algerian protesters in 1961, demonstrations by the Gilets Jaunes in 2018. … For Andras, the very geography of Paris offers a political education for the hungry and curious.”

It’s a difficult book, and as I began to read I was very confused. Eventually, I began to see how the author was shaping his tale of expanding political awareness and making the reader see what he saw. After finishing, I went back and reread the first third of the book (which is quite short) and finally began to feel I understood a bit about it.

Review © 2024 mae sander
Photos as credited.


Divers and Sundry said...

I am of an age to remember this war. My male friends had draft numbers but none were called up. I recently watched Apocalypse Now. Horrifying images. There's a scene with French holdouts, and that was a part of the history I didn't know.

Boud said...

My French pen friend at that time was anxiously awaiting her father's return from what we then called IndoChina. Dien Bien Phu was a total military disaster, which the French propagandized as a brave last stand.

The nurse was a handy figurehead. No doubt brave, she was doing the job she'd signed on for. Yes I'm a bit cynical about these rewrites, having lived in the UK through this period, reading newspapers and seeing it translated into something glorious.

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

I remember reading years and years ago about how WalMart modeled their eventual takeover of the now famous big box store from Ho Chi Minh. He captured small villages, one by one, before heading to larger areas. That is what WalMart did. The entered a small town then drove small business owners out, one by one. Then they would move on to the next town and proceeded to do the same. I think you can see why I have NO love for WalMart.

This was an interesting read and one I knew nothing about. Thanks for sharing it and your drink reference with us for T this week, Mae. I also knew very little about the Vietnam War, even though I lived through it.

Nicky said...

Wow, Faraway the Southern Sky sounds fascinating. 🤔 Not entirely my thing, but I do like to try things that aren't obviously my thing, and you've intrigued me. I'll have to keep an eye out!

My name is Erika. said...

That book sounds interesting. I believe Ho Chi Minh lived and worked in Boston for a while. But I hadn't heard of Genevieve de Galard. Funny how someone who received a ticker-tape parade on Broadway is probably unknown to many others too. Have a super T day Mae. hugs-Erika

Sherry's Pickings said...

I've never really understood the whole second person voice in a book. It just seems weird to me! Wow that story of the prostitutes is amazing. I bet they were not voluntary ones either!! I mean they were probably slaves and/or stolen from their families. Awful!

gluten Free A_Z Blog said...

Fascinating information and review , Mae-. Military field brothels is something I never heard of.. quite interesting.

Valerie-Jael said...

This was a very interesting read, thanks for sharing. I only have vague memories about it! Valerie

Lisca said...

I am old enough to know about this but at the time I was really not interested. It is good in a way that the prostitutes did this sort of work as it was very necessary, and who knows ( as they volunteered) they probably preferred it to being a prostitute. They were probably forced to prostitution. I read a book not long ago about the ‘comfort women’ during the WWII in Korea. Girls were rounded up to be prostitutes for the Japanese soldiers. The book is called Daughters of the Dragon by William Andrews. It’s fictional based on a true story.
A lot of nurses risked their lives and did good work but rarely got acknowledged. So it’s good this woman got ticker taped.
Happy T-Day,

Iris Flavia said...

Interesting read. What happened should never be forgotten, nor repeated....
And yet...

David M. Gascoigne, said...

Seems like a very interesting book, and important in many ways. I have vivid and fond memories of my visit to Vietnam a few years ago and getting to appreciate the other side’s view of the war, the American War as they called it. The number of inter-race children was alarming and their treatment even more so. They seemed to be despised by their own people and of course had no chance of reconnecting with absentee fathers. I suppose their mothers were viewed as traitors and the children inherited the stigma. One of the bird guides we were assigned in Cat Tien National Park was a former officer in the Liberation Army and told us many stories of the war. It’s too bad we couldn’t mobilize the kind of protests that characterized the Vietnam War in support of climate change, a far greater existential threat affecting all of humanity.

CJ Kennedy said...

Sad that women's exploits just as heroic as men are erased from history. Thoughtful post. Happy T Day

Vagabonde said...

I haven’t read the book you mention but know that colonialism was horrific for any country. There is much that is not generally known about the Indochina war. A while back I read several French books and old French articles on it. France wanted to leave Indochina in the early 1950s. But Eisenhower was afraid it would turn communist and France was given $400 million to continue the war, and said the US would finance it from that time (which they did.). France was also promised B-26 aircraft. France was hesitant but Eisenhower more or less said if you don’t accept we won’t help rebuild France. The battle of Dien Bien Phu was financed by the US with old armements, but no B-26. (My father had a friend whose brother died there and told us a lot about it.). De Gaulle wanted even to make a deal with Ho Chi Min but Eisenhower refused.
Graham Greene’s book The Quiet American shows that the US was working undercover in Indochina already in 1950 or before.
Just like it is not known at all in the US that FDR wanted to annex France after WW2, the involvement of the US with the Indochina war is not know, at least here.
Actually I read something funny when I was reading about FDR and his hate for De Gaulle. FDR just after the war (before France went back to Indochina) FDR offered it to Tchang Kai-check in 1945, who refused. France lost 90,000 soldiers in Indochina, almost double the US casualties in VietNam.

Vagabonde said... not sure if my comment came as anonymous as I am writing from my iPad.

pearshapedcrafting said...

What an interesting post! I know very little about Vietnam but then I am still feeling ashamed that I knew so little about D Day! Hugs,,Chrisx

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I just picked up Countdown, a children's? young adult? novel set in the sixties. It's a mix of photos, quotes, and news from the sixties alongside a traditional story of a young girl growing up in that time. I was started to read this in the book:

"...Americans learned that on the same day in 1945 that the Japanese surrendered in World War II, a man named Ho Chi Minh, in a little faraway country called Vietnam, proclaimed Vietnam's independence from the French. He wrote---

We hold the truthat all men are
created equal, that they are endowed
by their Creator with certain unalianable

He borrowed words from Thomas Jefferson in his letter. He declared himself president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and wrote to President Truman to ask for help for his fledgling country. His letters were never answered."

Spyder said...

I think there's a lot of History that we don't know all the true facts about and probably never will, thank goddness for people that do remember and keep the rest of us thinking about other things that really are important to our history. Very late as always, but at least I managed to post this week! Happy late T day ((Lyn))