Exactly what kind of book does Éric Vuillard write? It seems to be a matter in some dispute. French critics have used the word “récit”, meaning story or narration, and therefore distinct from “roman” – novel – or “histoire” – history. There are various English terms, such as “faction”, or “docu-novel”, or the awkward “historical novelisation”. To make things more confusing, he was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize for Fiction for The Order Of The Day, even though it was insistent on the grounded reality of the past (in that case the rise of the Nazis), as indeed were The War Of The Poor, about early modern religious conflict, and Sorrows Of The Earth, about Buffalo Bill. It seems a rather French phenomenon, given works like Laurent Binet’s HHhH or Frédéric Beigbeder’s Windows On The World, a real time narrative of 9/11. You can, frankly, call it whatsoever you like – I shall say it is not-non-fiction – when the writing is as excoriating and profound as Vuillard’s is here. Although this is his 12th work of – whatever-you-call-it – it is only the fourth translated into English. I am reminded of the scurry to publish when Jean-Marie Le Clézio won the Nobel Prize for Literature: funny how an accolade makes readers here look at literature in translation.
An Honourable Exit is a remarkable work. Although most Anglophone readers will have an idea about Vietnam or Korea or Aden even, the French conflict in Indochina, against Ho Chi Minh, has far less traction. The book plots the ghastliness from the first misgivings about the wisdom of the endeavour up to the fall of Saigon. Although there are passages detailing what things were like on the ground, equally there are sections on the corridors of power back in Paris. The title refers to the problem the French had, caught in a cleft stick between the necessity of extricating themselves and the need to save face. As with The War Of The Poor, it is not difficult to find echoes and parallels in the present. Unless one is a history buff, it is highly unlikely that names such as Dupont, Brusset, Herriot, Djemad, Mendès, De Lattre or de La Croix de Castries mean anything at all. That does not matter one whit, as Vuillard deftly sketches each of these real people. It is sometimes done by detail. The Assembly President, Herriot, is described in this manner: “It was twelve-fifteen and the president buttoned his jacket, as politicians and businessmen habitually do by a kind of conditional reflex... businessmen and politicians have always had a problem with bulges, with the paunch. Age is part of it; but salaries, perks, and gratuities are the main cause of that deformity”. Another person is characterised with a universal statement; “Our dishware, the quality of our table settings, our napkin rings and ice cube trays, say as much about us as our opinions. We are the items we possess”. This line has a deep political relevance as the book progresses. Another has his neck “ringed… with tissues” by a make-up artist prior to a TV interview. The book shifts between past and present tense, and often foregrounds its own artifice. Phrases like “it’s hard for us to imagine” pepper the text, making clear that there is an element of license at work here. Indeed, it seems a moral point. Vuillard is effectively saying “I am being honest with you in a way your government was not”.
Vuillard does not take liberties with the statistics. The war was costing five million francs a day. He interrogates how the war is even described, in particular in a chapter entitled “How Our Glorious Battles Transform Into Corporations”. We should, he writes, “out of respect for exactitude... rebaptize The Battle of Cao Bang, over which the parliament was tearing itself apart as: The Battle for the Pewter Mining Company of Cao Bang”. Vuillard traces the network of commercial and vested interests, while remaining unblinking at the very reasons why the Viet Minh might be less enamoured of the situation. One scene depicts an inspector discovering abuses on a plantation (one for Michelin: check your tyres) where an obvious victim of torture is imprisoned. After claiming he is a deserter, the officials change the story to “treating a dysentery case”. The inspector thought – and of course, Vuillard is smart enough to know he really does not know what the man thought, but the point stands “And this is how you cure him, by chaining him half-naked to a post?”
The title refers to a popular phrase that the best the French could hope for is “an honourable exit”. “Ah, you should have seen the last Westerners evacuated in extremis… you absolutely have to see the diplomates awkwardly climbing the rope ladders, neckties whipping in the wind”. Then comes the killer-blow condemnation, a brief moment worthy of Zola. “The pathetic hope of an honourable exit had consumed thirty years and millions of dead, and this is how it all ends! Thirty years for such a farewell. Maybe dishonour would have been preferable”. I cannot think of an Anglophone author who writes with such polemical, poetical indignation.
An Honourable Exit, by Éric Vuillard, Picador, £14.99