A photo of a French Indochina stamp. Image Credit: Midnight Believer / Wikimedia Commons

For 100 years, the French have been fascinated by their troubled colonial adventures in Indochina—a topic that keeps turning up in publications, novels, and films, from Andre Malraux’s L’Indochine, the newspaper he founded in 1925 to champion Vietnamese independence, to Éric Vuillard’s latest book, just published in English translation as An Honorable Exit. In the realm of fiction and semi-fiction, depictions of a bygone Indochina can be found in Marguerite Duras’s quasi autobiographical novel L’Amant (1984); Jean Lartéguy’s Les Centurions (1960); Édouard Axelrad’s Marie Casse-Croûte (1985); and Antoine Audouard’s Un pont d’oiseaux (2006). 

Similar images also abound in French cinema. In 1992 alone, there was the film Indochine by Régis Wargnier, which went on to win an Oscar; Jean-Jacques Annaud’s adaption L’Amant, (known as The Lover in the United States), which won that year’s César; and Diên Biên Phu, a star-studded blockbuster that cost $24 million and was directed by Pierre Schoendoerffer, an Indochina War veteran.

Some critics have been troubled by what one has called a “a great return of the repressed’”—it’s as if French writers and directors can’t escape an obsession of revisiting our Asian past on the grand airs of bad conscience or nostalgia.”

The term “nostalgia” comes from the Greek roots nostal (meaning “home”) and algia (meaning “pain”). In its most direct sense, nostalgia signifies the discontent with the present state of affairs when that cherished “home” no longer exists. Historian Patricia M. E. Lorcin distinguishes between two forms of imperial nostalgia, depending on whether the pain of loss (-algia), or a bittersweet yearning for a bygone form of life (nosta-), is paramount. 

Both forms of nostalgia typically go hand in hand with a denial of the present. In this context, reflections on past lives are often idealized, selectively emphasizing the positive aspects while downplaying the more problematic ones. More specifically, empires tend to create a rosy picture of the past, conveniently ignoring the atrocities they inflicted. These nostalgias are, in essence, constantly nurtured by a diet of fantasy.

Vuillard’s new book, An Honorable Exit (Other Press, 2023), brings a truly refreshing perspective to the French fascination with Indochina. As he did in his acclaimed debut, The Order of the Day, Vuillard resorts to a récit, or “tale,” which enables him to blur the line between fact and fiction. As a result, An Honorable Exit combines the documentary accuracy of history with the narrative flair of a novel. In this way, he aims to shed fresh light on what happened in the First Indochina War before the fall of Dien Bien Phu.

Vuillard’s récit commences with a group of French officials arriving at a remote rubber plantation in Indochina to investigate a series of peculiar cases in which Annamite workers had hanged themselves. Michelin rubber plantations, like the one depicted here, were typical of the Indochinese landscapes. (A similar scene can be found in the film Indochine when Éliane, a plantation owner played by Cathérine Deneuve, visits her rubber factory.) Such scenes serve a dual purpose: they depict the primary economic activities and labor dynamics within the colony while also implying the underlying conflict between the masters and their workers or, metaphorically, between the metropole and the colony.

However, this conflict is not Vuillard’s primary focus. From the start, he clearly conveys the idea that the French were always “tourists” in this foreign land, perpetually strangers. He quotes Michel de Montaigne, saying, “One must travel,” and then adds Gustave Flaubert’s​​ “travel makes one modest.”

Vuillard proceeds to imagine a travel book for Indochina that includes practical information like useful addresses (i.e., where to find guns and munitions), enchanting descriptions of the Tonkin scenery, and basic vocabulary, as though tailored for a gentleman from one of Guy de Maupassant’s stories. 

This approach cleverly strips the French colonizers of the heroic agency they typically hold in narratives about Indochina. In the film Diên Biên Phu, for example, the titular battle feels like a setting from a Hellenic epic. Within this modern Iliad, the French soldiers emerge as heroes, fighting valiantly for their dignity and ultimately falling victim to the twists of fate. 

Vuillard avoids this trap, in a witty manner. Just when we expect him to send us on a guided tour through Indochina using his imaginary guide book, he changes the setting of his tale. There are no Michelin plantations to explore, no sailing in Ha Long Bay, and no leisurely afternoons at the Hotel Continental’s terrace café while reading Graham Greene. Instead, Vuillard swiftly transports us back to the heart of the colonial system—Paris. What’s more, he takes a rather radical approach by abstaining from introducing any romantic subplots throughout the book. Without the allure of exotic landscapes or the clichéd Dragon Lady/Lotus Blossom tropes, readers find themselves plunged into an icy bureaucracy. 

In Paris, Indochina was a war less about life and death and more about honor and pride. It became a symbolic conflict. Figures like Édouard Herriot, Frédéric Dupont, and Max Brusset gradually enter the stage, advocating for increased military involvement in a distant land. Indochina became a backdrop for their political maneuvering. They taunted one another, pointed fingers, and reveled in the other’s failures.

Some might argue that Vuillard’s portrayal of these historical figures as loud, impulsive, and irritable boys is an exaggeration in his decolonizing effort. However, his caricatured depictions effectively illustrate how the meaning of this war could be distorted in the debates among rival politicians. 

Admidst these harangues and laments, two names repeatedly surface: Cao Bang and Dien Bien Phu. These were two major defeats of the French army in Indochina after 1945. When mentioned in proceedings in the National Assembly, the names evoke shame and indignation, but if anyone were to ask the legislators to pinpoint the location of either battleground, their response would likely resemble what Donald Pleasance’s character famously said in the film Diên Biên Phu: “Where the fuck is that place?”

In the later part of the tale, generals and foreign diplomats take the spotlight. In one chapter, the French general Henry Navarre makes a fool of himself when he relies on the American diplomat Henry Cabot Lodge to send a message by appearing on a television talk show in New York. In another chapter focused on American diplomats, we watch as the Dulles brothers ruthlessly manipulate their hapless French counterparts. 

Yet, at the end of the day, the Americans prove as hapless as the French.  The book ends with the fall of Saigon in 1975, underscoring the lie in President Richard Nixon’s promise to achieve “peace with honor.” 

Though Vuillard is very successful in his decolonizing approach to telling the story of France in Indochina, it won’t be a surprise if there are more nostalgic French movies or books about Indochina in the near future. But for Vuillard, Indochina, far from being an epic or a romance, is a true tragedy—a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. 

Albert Nguyen is an MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at the New School for Social Research.