Eric Vuillard ‘Une sortie honorable’


This may seem odd, but there had never been a french settler established in Cao Bang, no district, european social life, not a single enterprising trader, not a single hotel owner in search of adventure, not a single person to pave the way, no one…..The Cao Bang Mining Company was created in 1905; and in order to function only needed a few european engineers and foremen, that’s all, and a military outpost to protect themselves.***


This book, my first read for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2022, is written by Eric Vuillard, the 2017 winner of the prix Goncourt for ‘L’ordre du jour’ which took us to a secret meeting in the Reichstag leading to the financing of the 1933 elections and the petty negotiations between the different people present setting history on its unstoppable path to war. Here Vuillard takes us to an initial meeting in the National Assembly and the inevitable consequences of greed, leading to war in South East Asia. What are the french interests in Indochina? As he explains illustrated here in the opening quotes, it was not a question of a colony and the difficulties of communities living alongside one another, in both Cao Bang where the initial battles took place up to Diên Biên Phu where the french army was defeated, there were no settlers.

Vuillard takes us to a debate over the Indochina ‘situation’ in the house and through descriptions of the different political actors arguing to support the venality of the business interests, and of Mendès-France spelling out in detail that France had neither the means nor the real will to keep Indochina at all costs, he swiftly gives us a panoramic view of the political situation. Mendès, and the truth of course, are not welcomed in the assembly.


The truth” continued Mendès, his face showing no emotion, almost sad, “in a moment where so many other worries weigh on us, we do not have the means to impose the military solution that we have pursued for so long now in Indochina****


Vuillard takes us through the inevitable failures and the gross incomptence of the military commanders appointed by Paris, leading to a modern military power being overcome by peasants. He also introduces the American connection, including De Lattre de Tassigny’s visit to the US and the loaded questions prepared for him.


“Can you tell us why Indochina Is important for we Americans?”
As usual, the question seems abrupt, but in reality it is made to measure. It would seem to have been written by the Army communication department. And in spite of this De Lattre gets bogged down, he can’t find his words. At this moment any word will do, any tiny forgotten word, even a spasm, a sigh…….Then, as if appearing from below the waterline, the General takes a deep breath and adds “that Indochina is the keystone of South-East asia and that this keystone is surrounded….”.****


The description of the CIA and in Particular Dulles’s visit to Paris should leave the reader speechless:


Bidault opens the door without knocking, crosses the room, tripping on the carpet, and sitting on a chair opposite the secretary of state, seemingly overwhelmed: “do you know what Dulles just said to me?” Schumann looks looks at him confused: ” He offered me two atomic bombs to save Diên Biên Phu”****


A strong start to the 2022 prix de Rochefort, and for anyone unfamiliar with these events in history a must read moment!

First Published in french as “Une sortie honorable” in 2021, by Babel

The quotes as read in French before translation

Cela peut sembler curieux, mais il n’y a même jamais eu, un colon français établi à Cao Bang, nul quartier, nul vie sociale européenne, pas un commerçant entreprenant, pas un hôtelier aventureux, pas un seul premier de cordée, personne……La société des mines de Cao Bang avait vu le jour en 1905; et pour fonctionner, elle n’avait besoin que de quelques ingénieurs, de contremaîtres européens, c’est tout, et pour se protéger, il lui fallait un poste militaire.

“La vérité, reprit Mendès, le visage clos, presque triste, “dans un moment où tant d’autres soucis nous accablent c’est que nous n’avons pas les moyens matériels d’imposer en Indochine la solution militaire que nous y avons poursuivie si longtemps.”

“Pouvez-vous nous dire maintenant quelle est l’importance de l’Indochine pour nous Américains?”
Comme d’habitude, la question a quelque chose d’abrupt, mais en réalité elle est faite sur mesure. On dirait qu’elle a été rédigée par le service de communication de l’armée. Et pourtant de Lattre s’embourbe, il cherche ses mots. À ce moment, n’importe quel mot ferait l’affaire, un tout petit mot oublié, un spasme même, un soupir….Alors, comme s’il jaillissait brusquement hors de l’eau, le général reprend sa respiration et ajoute “que l’Indochine est la clé de voûte du Sud-Est asiatique, et que cette clé de voûte est encerclée…”

Bidault ouvre la porte sans frapper, traverse la pièce, trébuchant sur le tapis, et s’asseyant sur une simple chaise face à secrétaire d’État, l’air accablé, bredouille: “Savez-vous ce que Dulles m’a dit?” Schumann le regarde, désorienté: “Il m’a proposé deux bombes atomiques pour sauver Diên Biên Phu”

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