Losing Sight of Home: A Translation of Pham Van Ky's Perdre La Demeure
Born in Bình Định province of central Vietnam in 1910, Pham Van Ky was a bilingual Vietnamese-Francophone writer who published an array of poems and stories in his home country of Vietnam but also flourished as a novelist when he moved to Paris for studies at the Sorbonne (cut short by World War II). From a family of twelve other siblings, he was sent to study at a French school in Hanoi at the young age of thirteen. During this time, many placed their hopes in young intellectuals like Pham Van Ky to one day lead Vietnam to independence and bring about a new era of prosperity. At this school, he quickly developed a mastery of the French language in which he later wrote numerous works of literature and poetry. His first large-scale recognition was at the age of twenty when he won first place at the Indochina Floral Games for his French poem “Investiture.” By his mid 20’s, he was already the editor in chief of two prominent literary magazines, one in Saigon and the other in Huê.
In 1938, Ky left Vietnam to live in Paris where he attended the Université de la Sorbonne to study literature and he even pursued a thesis in religious studies at a Chinese university in Paris before ultimately halting this due to the onset of the war and the death of his advisor. He had to become a private French teacher to make ends meet all the while continuing to compose novels and poems which were sometimes published in local media outlets. His works were not only confined to novels and poetry though, as a few years after leaving Vietnam, he began writing works for theater as well.
His only return to Vietnam was in 1970, over thirty years after he left, and this trip home resulted in him writing an essay in Paris upon his return where he emphasized concerns about the structures of the socialist society he had seen in Vietnam and how things had drastically changed since he left. From this point onwards, he no longer published many of his works which had since shifted focus to cultural and political ideology. His inability to publish after this date was likely in part due to this change of focus and the uneasiness that the Parisian press felt regarding the new subjects presented in his writing. He would continue writing smaller pieces and essays from this point until his death in the Paris suburbs in 1992.
Sadly, Pham Van Ky is not largely recognized in the French literary world or even in his home country and is certainly not a household name among anglophone readers. This is partly due to his strong opinions and critiques towards the communist governing style in Vietnam but also due to his non-conforming style in an age of French literature where perception was everything, not to mention the heavy strains of colonial and post-colonial relations within France. In 1993, a Vietnamese literary committee compiled the works of many of the country’s great authors and while Pham Van Ky’s works were included, his name was never mentioned.
Overall, his works capture the notion of duality and the schism between “oriental” and “occidental” cultures. This is understandable given his own duality as both Vietnamese and French. One of the goals of his work was to show European readers that despite surface level differences in cultures and practices, humans are confronted with many of the same problems. His works also emphasize nostalgia for the homeland and call into question the concept and repercussions of colonialism.
These ideas are especially prevalent in Perdre La Demeure (published in 1961) where the main character, Captain Watakashi Hizen, might be interpreted as expressing Pham Van Ky’s own experiences with colonialism. The reserved yet potent style of his writing is what makes this story so powerful and insightful but this style, along with the multiple colonial histories intersecting in this novel, are what make this work so challenging to translate. For this project, I translated the opening two chapters of Perdre La Demeure or, as I have chosen to title it, Losing Sight of Home, in the pages to follow.
Set in 1870’s Japan during an era of intense industrialization, Captain Hizen (a former samurai) leads a group of soldiers guarding the railway being built and also oversees the workforce itself. Western engineers lead the railway design but the workforce largely comprises Japanese, Korean, and the native Aino people. Throughout the story, Captain Hizen is faced with a disgruntled workforce, frequent attacks from remaining samurai groups, and scathing and demeaning comments made by the western leaders that accompany him in overseeing the rail project. As the story progresses, Captain Hizen himself becomes disheartened and begins to doubt the virtues of this newly extolled modernisation. This realization comes after he tries to make peace with a samurai who is constantly attacking the workforce, but the samurai refuses to abandon the old ways and watch his country modernize before him. Despondent and now questioning his own ideas, Hizen is relieved of his duty and sent away in disgrace while the rail line continues to be overseen by someone else. By following Captain Hizen in this story, the reader is able to gain insight into Ky’s own mind and the moral conundrums he faces in confronting western powers in a land neither theirs nor his own.