It is with great pleasure that I read the Letter from Ha Noi, which a friend at the French embassy passed on to me. This book of about fifty pages written by Private First Class Jean Tardieu in 1928 at 25 years was published in 1997, two years after the death of this poet of “the droll and void of the world.” It interests me, as a Vietnamese, on more than one count.
This son of Victor Tardieu, founder of the Indochina Fine Arts School to which modem Vietnamese painting owes a great deal, evokes the physical and social ambience of our country with profound sympathy. At a time dominated by the Kiplingian ideology of “civilising missions” and “the burden of the white man,’’ he dared to make a vitriolic criticism of colonialism and showed profound respect for the cultural identity of the “Annamite” people - as the French used to call the Vietnamese derogatorily.
What strikes me particularly in this small masterpiece is the place he devotes to die climate. The heat, the sun and the humidity of the tropics colour the Chinese ink landscapes. He writes with wry humour: “Never have I felt so unstable as since I have come to settle for some time in Ha Noi. That must be due to the climate, it seems to me that in this country more than anywhere else, people are directly subjected to the despotic and capricious power of die elements. One feels one has become a simple puppet linked by thousands of invisible threads to the whims of the sun, clouds, mist, winds and the hours; thought changes colour, sensibility is aroused or dampens at the same time as a storm builds up, approaches, breaks out or dissolves. For my part, not a day has passed without my mental and physical state going through many successive phases: from tiredness to euphoria, from blissful well-being to a mysterious malaise, from perfect joy to despair. Often I have thought of what our Gide has remarked about the landscape of Africa: a lack of differentiation. Yes, that’s it, here in Tonkin loo, one has the vivid impression of a nature that does not differentiate — no precise limit between one season and another. Between one day and another, the temperature varies by ten or fifteen degrees: on some days it was really cold. Leaving my home early morning wrapped up in woollea jumpers and muffled in an overcoat I might think I was in Paris in December: the same pale and joyous sun, a delicious grey blue sky overhead, the distinct noise of the streets, feeling of lightness. Then suddenly the next day, a summer heat in France - stormy sky, leaden colour, dully brilliant clouds, etc. There is also a lack of differentiation on the ground itself: in the countryside of the delta, in some places one cannot know where the rice field ends and a pond begins — and the water in the rice fields looks like that of the sea, there are small crabs and fish. There are so many suiprises for anew tourist. The whole of nature, therefore, invites the foreigners, the non-adapted, to live from one day to another in a perpetual cock-and-bull story. There must be a sustained will to follow an idea for some time through so many breaks. One feels one has become more absurd than ever. There are so many irresistible sunny days when light flows around you, mingles with your blood and makes you transparent and shining like glass, that even if one had the biggest sorrows in the world one would be compelled to be joyful. On another day when everything is going well, when one has no grounds to complain there suddenly comes a sour wind mingled with a hot atmosphere. The sky is clogged by an accumulation of fog which, instead of stopping the piercing rays of the sun, reverberated them into the facets of thousands of hanging droplets - hostility of the world - no light; a cunning star which hides itself to give you a better sunstroke - one is sweating and shivering at the same time n after one hour of this regime the reasons for rejoicing disappear - burnt or dissolved, one does not know where. Suddenly, something happens in the sky, something incomprehensible: somewhere a storm is unfolding, the muscles that had girded up for an unknown threat gj relax and our nerves ease down. A frank and light dawn or a nightfall full of mansuetude - blossoms quite sweetly and quickly like the breeze of a fan and the good thoughts come back... !”
These lines were written seventy years ago. I wonder if today, taking into account the effects of deforestation, depletion of the ozone layer and pollution in general, Viet Nam’s climate would ever evoke among foreigners the same sensations and thoughts as it did in Jean Tardieu. Of course, the division between dry and wet seasons is much more accentuated. In any case, Viet Nam has become an independent country, its cultural and moral climate is no longer the same during the time of Tardieu.
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