by Christophe Bataille
translated from the French by Richard Howard
[New Directions, hardcover, $15.95]
Reviewed by Bill Meyers
Vietnam still rings exotic in American ears. Few of us have even visited as tourists. If you can forget the ugly images of the recent war, you are left with a picture of an ancient yet somehow primitive and mysterious civilization. How much more strange and exotic, then, was Vietnam to Europeans in 1788. True, most of the world had been charted then, and the great Indochinese peninsula was on the map. Trade with China and India was already of great importance to Europe. (Witness the Boston Tea Party of 1773). But Vietnam was not on the trade routes. Its ruler, however, after being overthrown by a rival, sent his son to request aide from the king of France. Louis XVI's own problems multiplied quickly to the point that he lost not just his kingdom, but his head as well. The son of the Vietnamese emperor died in France, but not before a small group of priests and nuns decided to commit themselves, not to restoring the throne of the old emperor, but to bringing the good news of Christianity to the heathen. For good measure they took a large group of soldiers with them. Christianity, like Islam, has always done better finding converts with a sword than by force of argument or example.
Faith proved adequate to the long voyage by sea, though it did not prevent disease and even death. Upon arrival in Vietnam, the religious community chose to stay in a poor village, and the soldiers set off to conquer a richer city. The soldiers were wiped out in their first battle, but the priests and nuns were not harmed. They were not arrogant. Working alongside the Vietnamese, they made themselves welcome to share their food. They learned the native tongue and started teaching the Gospel to the occasional peasant who would listen. As disease took its occasional toll their numbers dwindled. A faith learned from a book, repeated over and over from childhood, can be strong. A faith learned from life, from nature itself, and reinforced by nature, can be stronger still. Just before one Easter, the rice crop was destroyed, and so no Easter was celebrated: they planted a new crop. Then three of them, two priests and a nun, set out to begin teaching in the mountains.
Annam, for me, calls no book more to mind than Steinbeck's To A God Unknown, one of the finest works of English literature. In that novel an educated Easterner brings his family to California to farm. In the process of adapting to the Salinas Valley his preconceptions are slowly stripped away. In the end he returns to the worship of the old natural gods of his Celtic ancestors, the same spirits worshipped by the indigenous people. Bataille follows the final test of faith of the French missionaries, showing how they learn from their own work in the fields and the natural-spirit worshipping Vietnamese. Cut off from Christendom, their psalms, though repeated, lose their meaning. Eventually they stop preaching the Gospel. Yet they have not really lost their faith: in a sense they have returned to it. Talking to an old peasant, the priest said: "God speaks to us so little." The peasant replied: "How green the rice-fields are; they are the mirror of heaven." It is hard not to feel that way in the more remote areas of California. We live in a mirror of heaven. Vietnam is not so exotic, after all, except in how its natural history differs from our own. Annam is a wonderful book. It is short, almost poetic; the prose makes the reader want to see what Bataille is capable of in a longer work.
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Go to Amazon.com to Order To A God Unknown