Clement Baloup’s Vietnamese Memories, Book 1: Leaving Saigon

by Koom Kankesan

Humanoids translation of Clement Baloup‘s anthology about Vietnamese people displaced during the twentieth century begins with an account of him (age twenty) first talking about the experience with his dad. His dad is making shrimp curry in the Vietnamese style (it’s the coconut milk that’s essential), and Clement is surprised to learn that his father was one of the forced migrants who came to France from Vietnam.

This prompts Clement in the present day (as a successful illustrator/cartoonist) to begin searching out a number of people, now invariably older, in different French regions to hear their stories about the passage from Vietnam to France. The process of journey is, of course, not only geographical but psychological and Clement is interested in how these people adapted to their trials and new lives in the country that had its colonial stranglehold on Vietnam.

Clement provides a historical sketch of Vietnam over the twentieth century in the beginning: colonialization by the French, the replacement of the French by the Japanese, the ousting of the Japanese by the Americans at the end of WWII, the division of Vietnam and the conquest of South Vietnam by the Communists. Without belabouring the fact, Clement talks of how much narrative treatment of Vietnam comes from a Western European/American perspective: pawns in the domino theory, exotic foreigners, dark tales from the Vietnam war that emphasize the loss of America’s innocence. I’m no less guilty than others of consuming this version during the eighties, when a plethora of American films (and the spillover into mainstream comics – perhaps The Punisher being the most prominent example) cemented that narrative into North Americans’ minds.

Clement gently tries to redress this by listening to the various ex-Vietnamese tell their tales. His storytelling is simple, allowing the people he visits to drive the stories, but accompanying them with mesmerizing images. Rather than go for gritty wartime aesthetics, Clement uses a painterly style that is often as figurative and meditative as it is literal. Though the comics techniques may not be revolutionary, his artistic abilities are striking and very pleasurable to gaze at. Even though this kind of narrative owes something to Art Spiegelman’s Maus, it feels and looks very different. Perhaps it’s the French sensibility that distinguishes a large part of Clement’s identity as he filters these stories?

The stories themselves involve a fair amount of struggle and pain. People crammed in the cargo holds of ships, repatriation camps at the hands of the Communists that amount to little more than torture, families stranded out at sea on a raft without hope, exploited workers in French work camps who never receive any pay: these stories are full of heartbreak.

Yet the people who tell them have survived, moved on to some degree, and accepted their hybrid identities. Clement’s gentle style makes the stories very readable, never preachy. He dedicates the last portion of the book to Pierre Daum, a French journalist who stumbled upon the forgotten rice workers of Camargue, an exploited group of Vietnamese who revitalized the rice industry in that region. They were forced to live and work in a segregated camp. France had conveniently forgotten the episode, and even the townspeople chose not to believe that it happened. Daum did what Clement does, but to a much more involved degree – he tracked down people who had once been interned and interviewed them. His travels took him to Vietnam and Clement gives snapshots of some of the people Daum tracked down.

Daum’s book Immigres de Force (Forced Immigrants) brought the issue to light in France and French towns began to finally acknowledge what had happened. The book thus ends with a call to witness and remember, to not forget history or the past. It’s a lovely, bittersweet look at a colonial legacy and humankind’s poor efforts in the modern era when it comes to regarding how developing countries and their peoples have been treated by colonial superpowers. In a time when the Trump administration has been less than decent in its treatment of migrants, the issue is as pressing as it ever was. This book is well worth reading.