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Historical Dictionary

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NOVELS, FRENCH

If the Vietnam War gave rise to a number of pathbreaking novels in English on the conflict, the men who fought it, and the government, policies, and national cultures that sent them there, one searches in vain for the equiv-alent in French of Michael Herr’s Dispatches or Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. There is certainly no French equivalent to the powerful Viet-namese account of the brutality of war written by Bao Ninh in 1991, The Sorrow of War. Like many of the war films made by Pierre Schoendoerffer, French novelists have tended to celebrate the army’s values, heroism, and “a certain idea” of French nationalism, as Schoendoerffer put it. Jean Lartéguy, veteran of World War II and journalist during the Korean War, churned out a number of books on soldiers at war in Indochina in one way or another, including La ville étranglée (1955), Les âmes errantes (1956), Les centurions (1960), Le mal jaune (1962), and Le saltimbanque. In Le mal jaune, he paints a nostalgic, exotic, and, in the end, stereotyped view of Indochina and its inhabitants as seen by veterans who had fought there. In Les centurions, he traces the heroic if tragic itinerary of mainly French soldiers in the Expeditionary Corps as they move from one war to another, from Indochina to Algeria by way of Suez. The heroic, abandoned soldiers also serve as the trope for Pierre Schoendoerffer’s novel the 317ème Section, as they flee faceless Vietnamese communist forces closing in on them as Dien Bien Phu falls. Édouard Axelrad, a former colonial official turned journalist during the war, wrote a novel entitled Marie Casse-Croûte in which he traces the life of the daughter of a Vietnamese nationalist turned prostitute who becomes a Madame herself and supports the French war effort, to the point of sending a couple of dozen of her “girls” to the besieged camp at Dien Bien Phu. They ended up saving lives heroically as makeshift nurses as the battle closed in on them. Another type of novel takes up the question of prisoners of war in the communist prisoner camps of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Gérard Avelane’s account of a Vietnamese prisoner camp, L’enfer du camp 13 (1965) is a case in point. British author Graham Greene wrote perhaps the most sophisticated novel on the Indochina War. In The Quiet American, he takes on a myriad of complex issues with finesse, not least of all the entry of the Americans into the war as French colonialism waned and the British looked on, perplexed. See also CINEMA; CULTURE; EXPERIENCE OF WAR; MYTH OF WAR: NOVELS, VIETNAMESE; TRAN DAN.