Doan Bui ‘La Tour’

In the fifties, the Italy 13 project was launched with the aim to completely renew the 13th arrondissement, a working class area in the south of Paris, and to make it the ideal “contemporary living environment”. It’s designers planned building 55 tower blocks, in the area that used to be the Gobelin’s goods station. This was to be known as the Olympiades as it was supposed to create a sort of idealist sporting community within the city. There would be parks, an ice rink, a swimming pool, shops, happiness within easy reach. It had all been planned before the 70’s oil crisis, a glorious time when we still dreamed of progrès, of territorial conquests in economic terms and also in space. ***

First Published in french as “La Tour” in 2022, by Grasset.

This weekend I was at Vincennes for Festival America where I attended Viet Thanh Nguyen’s intervention about his America and as the hour went on I wondered whether Doan Bui was there due to the similarities between his and her worlds.

This book, was my fifth read for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2022, and is centred around the thirteenth arrondissement in Paris well known as the Chinese area. But of course it is much more subtle than this, first of all of course not all of South East Asia is China! Doan Bui through a multiple story of people living in the Olympiades described in the opening quote. As money got tighter in the seventies, the rink, pool and shops were sacrificed and the hoped for upper middle classes never came. The Olympiades were slowly filled with poor immigrants and refugees. Doan Bui tells us of two Vietnamese families, the Truong family, Boat people fleeing Vietnam to finally arrive in these tower blocks and of Victor’s childhood friend *** who left Vietnam years earlier on a scholarship and lives in the Paris suburbs. The Vietnamese are not the radical lefts idea of refugees shown here by Alice, Victor’s wife’s reaction to the socialists coming to power in ‘81:

The left wingers were resolutely secular…. They preferred refugees compatible with their ideals, Iranians for example fleeing religious dictators or South Americans, Chileans escaping from Pinochet or Argentinians persecuted by the Perons. All of the dictatorships in South America were supported by the great American Satan, they welcomed old Nazis, in short it was the super Bingo of evil, what’s more the Argentinian and Chilean refugees were alluring, tall, dark haired, as opposed to the tiny Asian refugees. The left wingers were right to be reticent. Later these same tiny Asians voted as one for the RPR: Chirac was their idol. In May 1981, the day of Mitterand’s election, they collapsed, amazed to see the crowds in fervour at the Bastille. “These stupid French, they cheer on the communists, well they’ll get re-education camps, we’ll see if they still like the reds as much!” Shouted Alice.***

Doan Bui examines the different people living in this “Tower of Babel”, Victor’s daughter Anne-Maï, growing up in France as Viet Thanh Nguyen had in America, and dreaming of being blond, of Ileana the Romanian pianist, now an exiled nanny, looking up her own daughter on her smartphone each night; a sad story here. Of Virgil from Senegal, with no papers, living in one of the underground garages (all of which are inhabited by people who don’t officially exist) and his growing business of writing stories for the refugees that are more realistic to the French administration than their own sad stories. Of Clément so obsessed with the great replacement that he is mentally challenged and thinks he’s Michel Houellebecq’s dog.

A fun but informative book as each of these characters crosses others. The Vietnamese stories reminded me a little of the stories of the arrival of the different characters in Viet Thanh’s book “The Sympathisers” without the spy story.

*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Dans les années 50, le projet Italie 13 vit le jour. Il visait à rénover en profondeur le 13e arrondissement, quartier populaire du sud parisien, et à en faire la quintessence de « l’habitat moderne ». Ses concepteurs prévoyaient d’ériger 55 tours, là où se situait jadis la gare aux marchandises des Gobelins. L’ensemble avait été nommé les Olympiades car il devait reproduire une sorte de phalanstère sportif dans la ville. Il y aurait des parcs, une patinoire, une piscine, des magasins, le bonheur à portée de main. L’ensemble avait été pensé avant le premier choc pétrolier, glorieuse époque où l’on rêvait encore de progrès, de conquêtes territoriales, économiques et spatiales.

Les gens de gauche étaient résolument laïcs. Les curés, les églises, toute cette bondieuserie : très peu pour eux. Ils préféraient les réfugiés politiquement compatibles, les Iraniens par exemple, fuyant la dictature religieuse ou les dissidents d’Amérique du Sud, Chiliens pourchassés par Augusto Pinochet ou Argentins persécutés par le couple Perón. Toutes ces dictatures en Amérique du Sud étaient soutenues par le Grand Satan américain, elles accueillaient les anciens nazis, bref, c’était le super bingo du Mal, et puis les réfugiés argentins ou chiliens étaient séduisants avec leur haute taille et leur chevelure sombres, contrairement aux réfugiés asiatiques gringalets. Les gens de gauche avaient raison de se méfier. Plus tard, ces mêmes Asiatiques gringalets votèrent en masse pour le RPR : Chirac était leur idole. En mai 1981, le jour de l’élection de Mitterrand, ils s’effondrèrent, affligés de voir à la télévision la foule en liesse à la Bastille. « Ces idiots de Français, ils applaudissent les communistes, on va leur en donner des camps de rééducation, on verra s’ils aiment autant les roses ! » cria Alice.

Béatrice Commengé ‘Alger, rue des bananiers

The word war had still not been pronounced. France hasn’t been at war for twelve years: that was the official story. A rebellion wasn’t a war. And the army come over from France to put down the rebellion wasn’t a war time army. The dead and the wounded in the cafés weren’t war victims . Everything was ok.***

Opening quote remind you of anything contemporary? Well so it should, if you don’t give it it’s name all is well, remember the Indian Mutiny? In this book, my fourth read for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2022, Béatrice Commengé, going through her father’s books, mostly about Algeria, decides to investigate her own family’s relationship with Algeria, she herself left one year before independence as a soon to be teenager. Commengé juxtaposes her happy childhood memories growing up in France’s Algerian colony, mostly unaware of the events taking place leading up to independence and her family over four generations. Could they possibly not know of the violence on which l’Algerie Française was built, that their land had been taken from someone else and that these people had fought for more than one hundred years for their land as in the following extract describing a village close to her great great grandmother Jeanne’s address in 1860:

The colony had already known catastrophes. On the right bank the village of Maison carrée, — a brand new name, like Fort-de-l’Eau, had developed. Even the soil was new, reclaimed from the marshes, and bit by bit planted with vineyards and orange groves. Good crops. Cleaned of any past lives. Even the name of the tribe who lived on these lands thirty years previously had been forgotten, the Ouffia, or Aouffia, the night of the 6th to 7th of April 1832 had been forgotten when the duke of Rovigo had assembled the two hundred and ninety five horses of his cavalry, backed up by two infantry squadrons with the orders to exterminate anyone resisting their attack, without discrimination of age or sex. How many were there of the El Ouffia to warrant such force? The disagreement over the numbers still goes on today.***

No she concludes, Jeanne had not forgotten the Ouffia, she had no idea of their previous existence.

As the violence closes in on Algers, her child’s knowledge of events comes to the fore when De Gaulle tells the people of Algers (for people read Europeans) that he has understood them, “Je vous ai compris”, à somewhat famous quote here in France:

Three days after Father’s Day, the 18th of June , the head of the école Dujonchay gathered all of the pupils in the yard. She explained to us that we were celebrating an anniversary, that of “l’appel du général de Gaulle, the 18th of June 1940”. The very same de Gaulle. She reminded us that he had saved France in creating the Resistance and that now he was going to save French Algeria.***

A necessary book told from an unusual angle, but full of names and dates, not making it a favourite of mine for the prix du “Roman”.

First Published in french as “Algers, rue des bananiers” in 2020, by Editions Verdier.

*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Le mot guerre n’était toujours pas prononcé. La France n’était pas en guerre depuis douze ans: c’était là l’histoire officielle. Une rébellion n’était pas une guerre. Et l’armée venue de France pour combattre la rébellion n’était pas une armée de guerre. Les morts et les blessés des cafés n’était pas des victimes de guerre. Tout allait bien.

Trois jours après la fête des Pères, le 18 juin, la directrice de l’école Dujonchay a rassemblé tous les élèves dans la cour. Elle nous a expliqué qu’on fêtait un anniversaire, celui de “l’appel du général de Gaulle, le 8 juin 1940”. Le même de Gaulle. Elle nous a rappelé qu’ils sauvé la France en créant la Résistance et qu’il allait maintenant sauver l’Algérie française.

La colonie a déjà connu ses catastrophes. Sur la rive droite s’est développé le village de Maison-Carrée — un nom tout neuf, comme Fort-de-l’Eau. Même la terre est neuve á Maison-Carrée, conquise sur les marécages, et peu à peu plantée de vignes et d’orangers. De belles cultures. Nettoyée de toutes vies passées. On a oublié jusqu’au nom de tribu qui vivait là trente ans plus tôt, les Ouffia, ou Aouffia, on a oublié la nuit du 6 et 7 avril 1832 où le duc de Rovigo a réuni les deux cent quatre-vingt-cinq chevaux de sa cavalerie, épaulés par deux compagnies d’infanterie avec ordre d’exterminer tous ceux que résisteraient à l’attaque, sans distinction d’âge ou de sexe. Combien y avait-il d’El Ouffia pour nécessiter tant de bras armés? La dispute sur les chiffres dure encore.

Mariette Navarro ‘Ultramarins’


—Captain, the pump seems to be adjusting its rhythm, it’s doing it to…..well to, don’t take me for a fool, to play music. Captain, do you hear me?
—I don’t take you for a fool.
—A regular rhythm, changing with the weather. What’s unbelievable is that it doesn’t always slow down. If there was a failure, it would slow down. But here, no, sometimes it speeds up too.

This book, my third read for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2022, has a mystical theme, a cargo ship with a disreet female captain and a skeleton crew is crossing the Atlantic Ocean. In this ultra connected world where cargo ships and their proress are tracked by satelite, the captain takes the unheard of decision to stop the ship and to let all of the crew except herself, lowered in boats, go for a swim. No other ship comes near them in this time and the captain intends to make up for lost time before arriving at their destination. All takes place as imagined but there seems to be some doubt about the number of crew members, weren’t there only 20 who went swimming?


They laugh.
But all of they are thinking of the number, 21, at the strangeness of the sound of this number. It should be said that there are a lot of new, very young, ones this time, you can mix them up, they look the same these young muscular boys who thought they were going to discover America or conquer the world.****


Slowly the story takes on it’s mysterious form, firstly with the mysterious 21st passenger and then in the weather with the sensitive captain accepting the strangeness as first in this tropical area a mist descends upon them:


As if she had to feel it, feel it through her skin to understand what is happening to her, she pulls the metal door towards herself and exits. She wants to feel the consistency of the mist, to know it’s temperature. There, that’ll be her swim.****


And then, as illustrated in the opening quote, the ship itself seems to take on the mystical shape of the story, could it be the 22nd crew member?

A short poetical story, advancing at the slow but unstoppable speed of the ship itself into the unreal.

First Published in french as “Ultramarins” in 2021, by Quidam
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Comme s’il fallait en passer, toujours en passer par la peau pour comprendre ce qui lui arrive, elle tire vers elle la porte métallique et sort. Elle veut sentir la consistance de cette brume, et connaitre la température. voilà, ce sera sa baignade à elle.

Ils rient.
Mais tous ils pensent à ce nombre, 21, à l’étrangeté du son de ce nombre. Il faut dire qu’il y a beaucoup de nouveaux cette fois, de très jeunes, on s’y perd, ils se resemblent, ces petits gars musclés qui croyaient qu’ils allaient découvrir l’Amérique ou conquérir le monde.

—Commandante, on dirait que la pompe ajuste son tempo, qu’elle en joue, pour faire…… pour faire, ne me prends pas pour un fou, pour faire de la musique. Commandante, vous me recevez?
—Je ne vous prends pas pour un fou.
—Un rythme régulier, qui varie avec le temps. Ce qui est incroyable, c’est que ça ne ralentit pas toujours. Si c’était une panne, ça devrait ralentir. Mais là, non, parfois ça accélère aussi.

Emmanuelle Fournier-Lorentz ‘Villa Royale’


We had no money, as Victor pointed out to me one evening as I moaned about not having a television. “Don’t hold your breath waiting for some in the near future,”..”to begin with, haven’t you noticed that we still don’t have any furniture?”
mother had bought a red plastic table, that was on sale, for the kitchen but we only had one chair. Charles had come across a flowery matress in the street that we used as a sofa on which we ate our breakfast on rainy days.***


This book, a first by this promising author, is my second read for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2022. Palma, a yound child at the outset is the narrator of this strange story of a family, her mother, Victor, Palma’s younger brother and Charles her older brother. Palma tells us of her earliest memories of looking out of the back window of their car at the asphalt disappearing behind them, much like their childhood. The book begins with the family leaving their house in Rue Chauvelot, Paris and moving to the Reunion Island, in a seemingly hurried manner. This first house move, if a little disorienting, arriving in the tropics, slowly reveals their precarious state of affairs, as Victor notices in the opening quote.

The children are not yet aware of the exact state of their affairs, thinking that as things haven’t worked out that they can just move back home. but of course they hadn’t just moved for a better opportunity as they grow to realise:


Charles continued:
It’s very simple. We’ll go back, mum. Your’ll look for work, Lakushka will look after us, everything will be fine….. To tell the truth, it’s a relief for me.
“And where will we live?”
“Well, Rue Chauvelot.”
My mothers eyes widened.
“We don’t have the house in Rue Chauvelot any more.”
“It’s been sold?” I asked.
I saw mum hesitate.
“It’s been seized”, she answered, her eyes lowered to her cigarette.***


As time goes on they seem to only stay in one place for a few months at a time, their mother always books them into a new school but sometimes they come home and for nearly no reason they throw everything into the car and they’re off again, as Palma later remarks:


Moving three times a year neither effaces our names nor hides our trace. As the car reached the first bare fields surrounding the village, we knew that the act of fleeing with this smell of fresh snow would cling to us. Afterwards it can’t be shaken off.****


As the book advances we learn the reasons for their lifestyle and the effects it has on them, especially on the two boys and was there a reason for their father to commit suicide? An ambitios and original first novel./span>

First Published in french as “Villa Royale” in 2022, by Gallimard
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Nous n’avions pas d’argent, comme me l’avais fait remarquer Victor un soir où je me plaignais de ne pas avoir la télévision. “Ne t’attends pas á ce qu’on ait sitôt.”..”tu n’as pas remarqué? Premièrement, on n’a toujours pas de meubles.”
Ma mère avait acheté en solde une table en plastique rouge pour la cuisine, mais nous n’avions qu’une chaise. Charles avait dégoté dans la rue un matelas à fleurs qui faisait office de canapé sur lequel nous prenions le petit-déjeuner les jours où pleuvait.
“Ensuite, nous n’avons pas de téléphone, ce qui, tu l’as remarqué aussi, ne déplaît à personne.”

Charles à repris:
C’est très simple. On rentre, Maman. Tu chercheras du travail, Lakushka nous garderas, tout ira bien…. À vrai dire, ça me soulage.
— Et où allons-nous vivre?
— Eh bien, rue Chauvelot.
Ma mère à écarquillé les yeux.
— La maison de la rue Chauvelot, on ne l’a plus.
— Elle a été vendue?” ai-je demandé.
J’ai vu l’hésitation de ma mère.
— Elle a été saisie”, a-t-elle répondu, les yeux baissés sur sa cigarette.

Déménager trois fois par an n’éfface ni nos noms, ni notre trace.
Lorsque la voiture a atteint les premiers champs pelés qui entouraient le village, nous savions que la fuite, avec son odeur de neige fraîche, s’accrochait à nous. Ensuite impossible de s’en défaire.

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”