Colonial administrators and officials were often much more interested in local cultures and customs than they are given credit for: they often had a genuine sympathy or the passing of local traditions and a resistance to fast modernization and social atomization, when the colonized were taken out of their native milieu. Often times it could be self-serving, a way to restrain the ambitions of the colonized by attempting to constrain them to traditional societies, without the modernizing forces which would contest colonial control, but at the same time it responded to a genuine affection for the colonized society. George Groslier’s book Le retour a l'argile is based on this theme, of a French colonial engineer who seeks to connect to a greater degree to Cambodian society and to valorize more the traditions and wisdom of the Cambodians. At the same time, Groslier's book is plagued by a rather black/white character contrast, and a stereotypical presentation of Cambodian women which minimizes its potential import.
Le retour a l'argile comes from a very specific period: the post-WW1 period when much of the self-assurance of the French colonial empire and its mission civilisatrice had been threatened, but the material foundations of French power were not not yet seriously undermined in the colonies. During this period, historical French individuals in the colonies such as Auguste Dupuis-Yakouba observed a guarded suspicion of European progress and claims to a superior civilization, and went some way to integrate themselves into the native population they lived among rather than trying to "civilize" it. Groslier praises Cambodian traditions and wisdom, and castigates the French for believing that they had nothing to learn from the Cambodians, and the distance between the two prevented a real French assimilation of their virtues.
So how does the book seek to explore this genuinely fascinating idea? At its heart through a mistress, Claude's congaie (local mistress) Kâmlang. It's hard to imagine a more superficial or stereotypical relationship, an incredibly common theme in all literature which deals with Southeast Asia, the lovely local mistress. It pops up in Claude Ferrare's Les Civilisés, in Green's The Quiet American, and now in Retour a l'Argile. Kâmlang is a rather stereotypical woman, often not even given the dignity of being Cambodian but rather assimilated to the vast, amorphous mass of "Asian," quiet, discrete, gentle, attentive, inscrutable, a bit awed of her European paramour, focused on petty material comforts. Her virtues are ascribed not to herself but harking back to immemorial Asian tradition, and of course, she is beautiful, sculpted by the environment and her race. The same for all Asian women: by modern standards it is rather eerie to hear the lengthy perambulations about the mixing of races and tides of people which led to this contradictorily homogenous maşs of barely distinguishably, interchangeable, women. This is extraordinarily off putting to a contemporary reader, and even in that woefully over-used word, “creepy.” It denies women like Kâmlang or the later second mistress that Claude acquires, Nakri, any of their own autonomy and individuality, and the descriptions of her seem like lurid fetishes.
There is nothing innovative here too in Claude’s approach: rather, the "experiment" which Claude plays is to, rather than take her under his roof, or into a European environment, to leave her in a native dwelling, going to live with her. But Claude continues to be much the same figure as before: sure, he may garb himself in Cambodian clothes and try to learn their language, but he’s still at heart a wealthy, prestigious foreigner, just one partaking of Cambodian rather than French luxuries. It's a rather shallow look at understanding Cambodian-French cultural differences. At least however, it gives Kâmlang some own agency, showing how she can use her influence with Raymonde to achieve her own gains, and includes her own thoughts as a person and devotes chapters to her. These might be stereotypical, but at least she appears as a person, unlike say, MISTRESS in The Quiet American or the complete lack of non-European characters in Les Civilisés.
There is also the purely black and white distinction among Europeans. Claude and his wife Raymonde are the one side, while the other European family which they associate with in Cambodia are the Bernards, Simone (pomme) and Pierre. Claude of course is taken with Cambodia and seeks to insert himself into Cambodian life and customs, while his wife Raymonde detests the country, constantly longs for a return to France, lives in never-ending fear of tropical diseases, compares everything negatively to her home: for her, life in the colonies is nothing but a misery, and she closes herself off, retreats, becomes more and more dissatisfied and isolated. By contrast, the Bernards thrive in Cambodia: they delight in the adventure and the vigor, they quickly become the firm yet fair masters of profitable plantations, they present an elevated grandeur and prestige in front of the natives: they find success in the French colonies. This hard and fast division between the two is dry and lacks nuance.
Its style is rather unremarkable, with only a modicum of the descriptive beauty one would expect, and often the conversations between characters and their internal thoughts are difficult to understand. It isn't ugly by any sense, just not terribly special. And what it does mention is mostly the stereotypical, superficial beauties of Cambodia: it has little of the daily, quotidian life of Cambodian people. Because it isn’t engaging at all with Cambodian traditions, customs, and life, just a Frenchman living as a tourist in the lap of luxury, with his mistresses and playthings. It’s an interesting novel, but mostly from a historical perspective, to observe changes in Cambodian society and French influence - such as the aspirations for a European style life and European luxuries, as when Kâmlang dreams of having a very French style home and is at first disappointed that Claude keeps her in her native milieu, even if she quickly overcomes this unhappiness thanks to the charm and compassion of Claude. It shows that Cambodian society's expectations and hopes are evolving quickly, despite European attempts to forestall it. And while the European characters respond to a rigid binary, they do show what were the stereotypes of colonial success or failure. Its look into the life and society of Cambodia might be rather shallow, but it certainly achieves more of it than say, Les Civilisés, which is entirely concentrated into the French world of Saigon, without making any effort to dive into the natives' lives other than visiting a brothel and an opium den. As a historical piece, useful, but as a novel, deeply unremarkable, fhd fundamentally shallow and disappointing given what potential it has.
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