“An Honorable Exit: Eric Vuillard’s Satirical Take on France’s Indochina War”

an honorable exit

Por Eric Vuillard

tusquets. 184 pages

The novels by the French Éric Vuillard, awarded prizes and highly praised by critics in his country, rehearse a novel and not at all Borgesian “Universal History of Infamy” about traumatic episodes from the European past that he addresses in a sarcastic key.

This is how he treated the French Revolution, the First World War or the rise to power of Nazism. Now, in his most recent experiment, an honorable exitis devoted to the Indochina War and the 1954 defeat at Dien Bien Phu, a blunder that sealed the decline of France as a colonial power and accentuated its irrelevance on the international scene in the second half of the 20th century.

Vuillard (Lyon, 1968) proceeds through caricature and the absurd. The sources of it are more or less established historical facts. Starting from this base, he builds a narrative artifice centered on paradigmatic scenes and characters that he examines under an implacable light that exposes all their contradictions, shortcomings and miseries, and, especially, his hidden perverse machinations. (If he were a right-wing writer, he would be accused of propagating “conspiracy theories.”)

Despite the mocking tone, of an outgrown intellectual, that turns into books, Vuillard’s villains are too obvious, schematic. Provincial and paunchy legislators who renounce their old ideals for conformism or perks; vain, clumsy and obsequious soldiers; cruel businessmen who prosper by plundering the colonies (rubber, tin, coal) and exploiting their poor inhabitants; diplomats and officials who, like the Americans John Foster and Allen Dulles, allies of France, act from Washington with a “mixture of ingenuity and perfidy” and offer two atomic bombs to subdue the communist forces of the Viet Minh.

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For all of them, Vuillard writes, Indochina was “the epicenter of something, an anguish, an aphasic, silent, greedy desire.” That war, prolonged in a senseless way, benefited the usual suspects, the powerful behind the political facades and the great speeches, those who pull the strings of economic interests that cross borders, ideologies and historical periods.

A repeated simulation of planetary dimensions that the author illustrates with this paragraph towards the end of the novel: “Let’s imagine some actors who never return to their real selves. They would forever play their role. The curtain would fall and the applause would not bring them back to reality. The room would be empty, the lights would go out, it would get dark and they would continue onstage. We could yell at them that we understand, that we know their roles, that we know the plot by heart, but they would continue to act stubbornly, pacing and reciting onstage. We would think that they have put a spell on themselves, that they are trapped in their own role, that they have pierced their hearts with their own arrow. The spectacle would be both beautiful and terrible, pathetic and absurd, and we would not know whether to laugh or cry.”

2023-05-28 01:55:14
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