cover image Annam


Christophe Bataille. New Directions Publishing Corporation, $15.95 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-8112-1330-1

Winner of France's Prix du Premier Roman in 1993 for its then 21-year-old author, this short first novel is a parable about the hubris of colonialism and the power of place. In 1787, Canh, the seven-year-old emperor of Vietnam, visits the French court of Louis XVI, beseeching France to send troops and missionaries to his troubled land. Canh dies of pneumonia, his offer rejected by the soon-to-be-beheaded king. But one year later, two French ships crammed with Dominican monks and nuns, as well as soldiers, make the perilous journey to Vietnam. The expedition's goal is to help Vietnamese Prince Regent Nguyen Anh, exiled in Siam, recover his throne. The missionaries start a religious community, build dikes and rafts, teach French and evangelize. Meanwhile, France suffers the paroxysm of its revolution. In 1800, Nguyen Anh, having seized power--and embittered because the French colonists have abandoned him--launches a massacre of the Dominican missionaries. Only two survive, Sister Catherine and Brother Dominic. As they mesh with the villagers, their religious convictions erode and they eventually become lovers. In Howard's superb translation, Bataille's style, built around short sentences, achieves a cumulative lyricism that poignantly captures the unfulfilled promise and tragedy of a historic moment that preceded the French conquest of Saigon by more than half a century. (Sept.)