Coloring History’s Gray Areas, With Strong Moral Outrage

When Éric Vuillard was an infant, his mother used to carry him down from their apartment into the streets of Lyon to wait for his father, who was participating in the student protests that were roiling France around the time he was born, in May 1968. “I am both happy and proud that my date of birth coincided with these events,” Vuillard said in a recent video interview from his home in Tours, central France.

As a writer, Vuillard has drawn on this background of protestation and distrust of power structures to produce a succession of short, biting historical narratives, distinguished by a tone of ironic exasperation. The latest, “An Honorable Exit,” delves into France’s defeat in the First Indochina War (1946-1954), the colonial abuses that preceded the loss and the American role in France’s war effort in North Vietnam.

Other Press will release the English-language version, translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti, in the United States on April 25. Its publication follows significant acclaim for Vuillard’s last two books, also translated by Polizzotti. “The War of the Poor” (2020), a stirring account of the German Peasants’ War (1524-1525), was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, and “The Order of the Day,” about the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, won France’s top literary award, the Prix Goncourt, in 2017.

Vuillard, 54, writes into gray areas of history that have rarely received narrative prominence. Of “An Honorable Exit,” he said: “I went through the French school books, and there must be all of two lines about the First French Indochina War. French literature about the war is also very limited, and historians have shown little interest. Another thing that I discovered is that there are very few French translations of Vietnamese texts about the war.”

One of the most revelatory texts that Vuillard consulted for “An Honorable Exit” was not in any official archive but something he stumbled upon in a secondhand bookstore: a travel guide to Indochina from 1923 that included essential Vietnamese words for French tourists. Vuillard reproduced them in his book: “Go find me a rickshaw, go quickly, go quietly, turn right, turn left, turn back, put up the top, put down the top, wait for me a moment, take me to the bank, to the jeweler’s, to the cafe, to the police station, to the dealership.”

“Each expression is a command that could be followed by an exclamation mark,” the writer said. “It establishes the colonial atmosphere that prevailed at the time.” To him, it indicated that “the Vietnamese were purely and simply treated as slaves.”

There has been some debate as to whether Vuillard’s books are novels or histories. Vuillard calls them récits, which can be translated as narratives, accounts or stories. In a 2018 review of “The Order of the Day” for The New York Review of Books, the American historian Robert O. Paxton said that Vuillard “has done some homework and his narratives are generally accurate, but he likes to heighten the impression of absurdity,” concluding that “Vuillard’s delight in irony seems to have outweighed exactitude.”

In reply, Vuillard published a letter of rebuttal in The New York Review calling into question Paxton’s notion of historical “neutrality.” He did not back down during our interview, either.

“Paxton thinks that a writer has to content himself with making up stories,” Vuillard said. “I think that is a naïve, almost childish point of view.” He added, “There is a false idea of literature among historians like Paxton, who don’t imagine that writers can possess a distinct literary knowledge, including writing about historical events.”

Polizzotti, who has made a specialty of translating concise, compressed French novels by Patrick Modiano, Marguerite Duras and now Vuillard, thinks there is an essential disconnect between two different approaches of writing about history. “Paxton is speaking, of course, from an Anglo-Saxon tradition,” Polizzotti said in a video interview. Referring to an overlap between fiction and nonfiction, he said, “Eric is speaking from a French tradition where that blending is much more recognized.”

Polizzotti described Vuillard’s approach to writing about history as “impressionistic.” “He’s out to create an effect,” he said. “He wants to have an emotional impact, even more than to fill you in on facts. So he uses facts, but he’s going to choose them in order to tell a story.”

He said a constant in the Vuillard books he had translated was “moral outrage”: “He’ll pick a moment or a figure or a period of time that really rankles him and just go for it.”

“An Honorable Exit” is Vuillard’s 11th book and the one that took him the longest to write, about 12 years, because archival research showed him a history that was different from official accounts. “What I learned about this war was that the French presence in Indochina was all about money,” he said. “The official reason given was that it was about evangelizing the Vietnamese and civilizing the population. The reality was that the French were there to extract the country’s minerals and plant rubber plantations.”

Vuillard places himself in a long tradition of satirical writing stretching as far back as Petronius’s “Satyricon.” “Satire’s role is to tell the truth,” Vuillard said, “or at least get close to it and show the artifice behind which power hides.”

It was this goal that led him to the title of his latest book. “‘An honorable exit’ is an expression that has cropped up time and again to describe the fallout of unwinnable wars,” he said.

“By using it out of context as a title, it immediately becomes satirical,” he said. “One understands at once that there will be no exit and it will not be honorable.”

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