Harry Hervey, Congai: Mistress of Indochine.
With the republication of the novel Congai, Mistress of Indochine, DatAsia Press continues its mission to make available important but forgotten works of English literature on French colonial Indochina for an Anglophone readership. The new edition comes almost a century after the novel was first published in 1927. Congai is one of the first literary accounts of French Indochina in the English language and possibly the first by an American author. During the 1920s, Harry Hervey (1900-1951), a homosexual writer-traveler who later worked in Hollywood, visited French Indochina with his young lover. Hervey's search for a lost Khmer temple did not pan out, but his travels yielded Congai, a tale of romance between a succession of French colonists and a native woman, as well as a travelogue called King Cobra (published soon after Congai and republished by DatAsia Press in 2013).
As Walter Jones explains in one of the volume's appendices, the Vietnamese word con gai, which simply means "young woman," had assumed negative connotations within French colonial nomenclature by 1885. Congai and the related neologism encongayement denote respectively a native girl who becomes a French man's concubine and "sexually-oriented partnerships between Western men and Asian women" (322-24). The 1880s and 1890s saw an intensive military conquest of Indochina, epitomized by the French "pacification" of Tonkin (1885-96), and the practice of encongayement seems to have paralleled an increasing French military influence in the region. Hervey adopts the cliche of the interracial love affair, an enduring trope explored since the late nineteenth century by French colonial writers such as Pierre Loti (1850-1923), Roland Meyer (b. 1889), and Jean d'Esme (1894-1966), but he elaborates it in compelling and unexpected ways. Seen through the eyes of a native girl named Thi-Linh, events take a critical and political turn as she successively becomes a congai of three French men: first, there is a young Indosinophilic writer who dedicates his novel, Une Fille d'Annam, to her; second, a French officer addicted to opium whose career she advances by sleeping with his superior; and, lastly, the wealthy, influential but aging director of the Banque d'Indochine, whom she advises. Thi-Linh learns from each relationship and grows personally and intellectually. An autodidact, she cultivates her knowledge of France and the Western civilization through literature, opera, and cinema. Her destiny propels her from her Cambodian hometown Stung Treng to the modern, decadent colonial capital Saigon. She gains admission to elite Saigonese social circles, only to have an affair with a naive American navy.
Thi-Linh's story parallels Indochina's development from the relatively peaceful colonial era of the early twentieth century to the First World War, during which France called on its colonial subjects, Indochinese included, to perform their patriotic duty. The novel further encompasses the rise of Vietnamese resistance between the World Wars and foreshadows an increasing American influence in the region.
Although Hervey's style feels dated and overcharged with "smoldering and febrile eventfulness," as Pico Iyer puts it in his preface to the novel, his exotic tale stands out among other Anglophone novels of the same period and genre. Congai inaugurated a number of problematic and even subversive themes. The protagonist is not only a native, but a subversive one. Thi-Linh is a half-caste or metisse, the offspring of a French father whom she never met and a Cambodian ex-congai mother. Thi-Linh represents those who belong neither to native society nor to French society: an unwanted but inevitable element stemming from colonialism itself and in turn destabilizing the rigid racial discrimination underpinning colonialism. Although stigmatized threefold--she is at once native, biracial, and female--Thi-Linh resists, if not defies, both the colonial determinism her condition traditionally assigns to her "type" and the conventional postcolonial reading of the congai situation altogether. Her story does not end fatally like that of other female characters in the tradition of exotic literature; on the contrary, it ends positively and in her favor. This is an anti-moral end for this kind of immoral femme fatale. And that is partially why the novel, after being adapted as a Broadway play in 1928 with a huge public success, never found its way to the Hollywood screen, despite Hervey's efforts (he became a successful screen writer, penning the classic Dietrich vehicle Shanghai Express). Moreover, the conventional postcolonial denouncement of the encongayement as an imbalanced and exploitative relationship in which native women are objectified and entrapped in sexual and economic slavery needs to be reconsidered in Thi-Linh's case. During the central dinner scene in which she hosts several distinguished guests including the general governor of Indochina, Thi-Linh holds forth on French colonial literature. She defends Pierre Loti's stories of interracial love against the guests' dismissive attitude and ends the conversation by commenting that "[Loti] seems a bit archaic. For in these days Fatou-Gaye [one of Loti's iconic characters] doesn't kill herself, she gets another Frenchman" (142).
Within the constraints of her subaltern condition, Thi-Linh transforms the "petite epouse" type into a feminist colonial subject who embodies the ambiguity of the French politics of "assimilation." "Civilized" (in other words "Westernized") by colonial contact, she paradoxically exposes the vulnerability of the colonial system and announces the beginning of an anti-colonial movement that will reach its peak in the 1950s. The Frenchmen depend on her to validate them as virile male colonizers. She is well aware of this fact and in turn exploits it for her own purification and empowerment (207). Thi-Linh is conscious of her own symbolic embodiment of this historical transition: "And she, Thi-Linh, daughter of Thi-Bao and a Frenchman, belonged to the period of transition when France was working with plastic surgery upon a corner of Asia" (187). However, she senses that Annam (i.e., Vietnam) "possessed a great secret--the power to assimilate, even simulate, without losing its national individuality" (186). And it is precisely this nationalist torch that she passes on to her son she conceives with her first Indochinese lover and goes to France to be educated: "Was not that her best weapons against France? Knowledge against knowledge" (212).
To help an Anglophone readership understand the personal and historico-cultural context of the novel, the publisher provides appendices amounting to almost half the volume. The seven articles are unequal in their pertinence and rigor. There is a piece promoting the Broadway production of Congai; a bibliography of Hervey's works; a brief biography focusing on Hervey's fascination with the Far East and the writing of Congai; a scholarly article on the figure of the congai; and three semi-academic bibliophilic articles by the editor Kent Davis. Apart their function of documentation and contextualization, these articles add a visual dynamic, reproducing photos, period documents, and original covers of novels.
The volume is not without flaws--certain doubtful translations from French to English (for example, the translation of Henry Casseville's novel Thi-Nhai, autre fille d'Annam as Thi-Nhai, Another Daughter of Annam instead of "another girl"), several citations of Wikipedia, inconsistent typography--but it reflects a strong, genuine effort to excavate a lost work of the early twentieth century for both the general and scholarly public. Readers might also take exception to the misleading exotico-erotic cover design, which the editor unconvincingly defends as capturing "the allure, secrets and ultimate power wielded by women who embody feminine perfection in the eyes of men who desire them--the most powerful of whom become powerless in their thrall" (v).
Congai's republication for an Anglophone readership is particularly welcome in a period when the revival of colonial literature on French Indochina has been undertaken almost exclusively in the French language, in particular by the French publishers Kailash and L'Harmattan. The inaugural American literary text on the region is crucial in the examination of the genealogy of Indochinese myths and phantasmagoria within the American imaginary. A later generation of writers like Graham Greene, in his novel The Quiet American (1955), picked up and developed these myths, bearing witness to Indochina's struggle and liberation (one of the articles in the appendices establishes the intertextual links between the two authors, Hervey and Greene). Hervey's novel shows the ways in which Indochinese exoticism has always been reinvented, even contradicted, cross-culturally among Western writers, be they French or American. Exoticism, despite its apparently misogynistic, Eurocentric, and racist overtones, here takes a form that is dynamic and critical, offering the possibility for resistance, if not radical change of perspective, from within its own discourse.
FAY WANRUG SUWANWATTANA
University of Oxford
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|Author:||Suwanwattana, Fay Wanrug|
|Publication:||Southeast Review of Asian Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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