The Book that Launched a Thousand Ships

By Pico IyerFebruary 24, 2014

The Book that Launched a Thousand Ships

Congai by Harry Hervey

BE PATIENT when you enter Harry Hervey’s humid and sometimes overwrought early novel, Congai, and be advised that one of its main themes is that things in French Indochina are seldom what they seem. It’s true that at first you may feel you’re trudging through a very heavy jungle on a horribly steamy day and being concussed by low-hanging fruit at every turn. By page 3 you’re reading of the “pitiless incandescence” of the heat, by page 4 you’re surrounded by a “silent brown mystery”; very soon you’ll notice that the young author never met a noun ending in “-ness” that he didn’t like, generally accompanied by an over-ripe tropical adjective.

We’re not accustomed to such smoldering and febrile eventfulness in the 21st century — “sultry brooding” and “exquisite frailty” in the same sentence — and when a Frenchman starts talking about “beautiful savages” on page 3, we’re taken aback: you’re not supposed to say things like that! Indeed, the Frenchman himself is advised that soon, perhaps to his cost, he’s not going to be calling the locals “savages” any more — or is even, perhaps, going to wonder if he’s the real savage. “Everything is paradoxical — particularly here,” says a nearby priest, and we get our first intimation of what a connoisseur of secrets and fictions our young author is. Congai, an early novel by an American in his 20s loose in Southeast Asia in the 1920s, is about to prove a lot more supple and unexpected than it appears, as will both the French colonizers and the Vietnamese colonized that are its central subjects.

What I love about Harry Hervey’s overwrought but weirdly stirring book is how constantly it proved me wrong, and how deliberately it overturned my every expectation, the first time I read it. To take perhaps the most obvious example, it begins with a young Frenchman in Indochina in the 1920s encountering a sultry local girl and beginning to surrender to her charms. Madama Butterfly revisited, I thought — or any of Pierre Loti’s famous romances (such as Madame Chrysantheme on which Madama Butterfly was based) updated a little, to tell the story of carefree Western romancer and bewitching, if ultimately abandoned, dark-skinned nymph. When, early on in the book, the wandering French writer actually publishes a novel about his local love — called Une Fille d’Annam, no less — I was sure that I was simply reading a thinly-veiled account of Hervey’s own romance with some local beauty. Everything seemed thinly veiled in Congai.

How wrong I was! The writer turns out to be just one of several amours his heroine will encounter, and Hervey had a much more intriguingly complex and equivocal relation to his subject than I’d guessed, as a gay man traveling around with a male partner and looking at men through the eyes of a fictional woman. At the central dinner party in the novel, the characters actually begin discussing Une Fille d’Annam, and it’s the “half-caste” Vietnamese girl who is its subject and dedicatee who defends it, even as various French officials write it off. And at that same party, the guests start discussing Loti, as if to show that Hervey was acutely conscious of the tradition in which he was working and the stereotypes he was invoking. Yet again, it’s the Frenchmen who dismiss the French chronicler of exoticism even as the Vietnamese woman finds much to praise in the traveler’s depictions of native beauties.

Loti, she says, was “able to catch the nostalgic beauty of Asia” while entertaining reactions that are “undeniably Eastern.” Emotionally, for her, he’s a “strange blending of both Oriental and Occidental.” She might be talking about her own creator, the 27 year-old American Harry Hervey — or, in truth, his alter ego, herself. Hervey came to Indochina in 1925, at a time when very few Americans had set eyes on it, and came out with six rich travel books and novels. In every one, he is scathing about colonialism and more than ready to go native — even as he never begins to assume the native culture is either easy or uncomplicated (when a Frenchman walks through her garden with the heroine, Thi-Linh, he registers “roses, mimosa, agaves, acacias, palms…with just enough thorny growth to make it interesting”).

One of the many reasons this curious, constantly twisting novel is worth revisiting today is that it sets into motion what seems a whole school of such seemingly autobiographical romances. The British had flirted with the genre — in works by Sir Richard Burton and Rudyard Kipling — but the French had turned it into a whole library of volumes, among them Saramani, danseuse cambodienne (Saramani, Khmer Dancer) by Roland Meyer, on which Hervey drew for his own non-fictional writing and, post-Hervey, Le Retour a l’argile (The Return to Clay) by George Groslier, which would claim France’s Grand Prize for Colonial Literature.

Congai brings this tradition into English, and soon we’re getting books of essays like Brown Women and White, by Andrew Freeman, in 1932, and the first of many novels stretching through Somerset Maugham’s Eastern romances and Paul Scott’s memorable Chinese Love-Pavilion to Jack Reynolds’s still celebrated Woman of Bangkok. Suzie Wong and Kissy Suzuki were not far ahead now, as Hervey helped open the door on what could be called the hidden sales tax — or nighttime subversion — of colonialism. By day, the Westerners imagined they were in control of the people they officially ruled; by night, in all kinds of ways, the empire struck back.

Step into a bookshop in Bangkok today — or Phnom Penh, Hong Kong, Saigon — and the books on the place written in English by foreigners will, almost to a one, be what could be called the grandchildren of Congai. I should know; I wrote one myself.


By the time Hervey arrived in Indochina, it was hardly surprising, after 60 or more years of French occupation, that many a Frenchman was moved to try to commemorate his love or loss, as lavishly as American counterparts would later do in Vietnam (Japan, the Philippines). And it’s interesting to consider the young American in the light of some of his contemporaries. When first entering the ripe, thunder-heavy world of Hervey’s Vietnam, I thought a little of the memorable young American novelist, Frederic Prokosch, who published a fantastically vivid and evocative account of a journey from Beirut to Hanoi in The Asiatics. But Prokosch’s book came out in 1935, eight years after Congai, and the most remarkable thing about it was that its author wrote the whole thing in New Haven; he’d never been to the countries he was describing, but simply drew upon the descriptions of those who had, Hervey perhaps among them.

I also begin to think of Somerset Maugham’s enduring travel book The Gentleman in the Parlour, from 1929, still one of the first works I recommend to travelers coming to the Asia where I’ve been living now for more than a quarter of a century. But Hervey dives fearlessly into the intensity of East-West relations in his work (the opposite of detached), where Maugham simply observes them from a safe distance and in a sedan chair being carried by local bearers. The 1920s marked a great explosion of writing about exotic corners of the world that suddenly became available to fortunate Western travelers, and it’s no wonder that the years between the wars are now seen as a Golden Age of writing about faroff cultures, thanks to masters such as Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Peter Fleming, and Robert Byron. But all of them, of course, were privileged Brits, and Hervey was the relatively rare American of his time to go much farther than a Fitzgerald or Hemingway and to plunge into the intricacies of a colonial drama that was not his own.

Perhaps most of Hervey’s readers, especially nowadays, wouldn’t know that there had been a novel called Thi-Nhi, autre fille d’Annam published (by Henry Casseville) five years before Congai, and, in the previous 11 years, another one (by Jean d’Estray) called Thi-Sen: la petite amie exotique, as well as one by the prolific Jean d’Esme, Thi-Ba, Fille d’Annam. It was a thriving genre that Hervey was both joining and subverting (as I found out only after making the acquaintance of Hervey recently). The young Texan out of the Georgia Military Academy was to some degree working as a literary import-export man, bringing into English the kind of story that was common in French and taking out of his own experience the kind of drama that many a Frenchman would recognize (but animated, in this case, by an unsparing look at France).

There is a lot in Congai about “white” and “brown,” and in describing one French character Hervey goes on about “pathetic whiteness” so obsessively, and with so many incantatory repetitions, that I wondered if he’d just emerged from a heavy ingestion of D.H. Lawrence (“Oh, the excruciating whiteness of him as he stood there!”). There’s also a lot about young and old (Thi-Linh finds Saigon “ancient and inevitable…[with] an oldness that had nothing to do with actual years,” and of course the same applies to her). But at heart Hervey is discerning enough to realize that old and young can coexist in the same culture — or person — and in fact his book is as much about the struggle between them in Thi-Linh (and in her culture) as the struggle between Europe and Asia. And as we follow his Annamite Emma Bovary, first torn between a Frenchman and a local boy she’s drawn to, later divided between her restless longing to try a different kind of life and the changelessness that is part of her inheritance, we see very much the division that defines Asia today: in India, in China, in Thailand, and in the Japan where I live, many are perpetually wondering how to take in the best of the modern, affluent West without losing the Eastern values that have guided and steadied them for millennia.

Yes, you have to wade through a lot of “gurgling brownness” and “fluid drowsiness” in Congai, to absorb plenty of “insuperable brutality” and “shuddering ecstasy” as you tramp through its torrential dramas. Hervey’s description of emotions is often as feverish as in a Harlequin romance, and there’s always a “savage splash of hibiscus” in his prose. But there’s no question that he inhaled Southeast Asia deeply, and with tremendous feeling. Watch the “dart and glide of two rickshaws beyond the low iron fence”; listen to “chirp of scissors and ring of sandaled feet; voices and the droning tear of silk”: he can conjure up foreign scenes with “a sense of suppressed drums” that makes us feel the languor and the heat. Deeper than that, he’s always making us aware that just beneath the gossamer delicacy of the cultures he’s absorbing is something hard as steel: Thi-Linh sinks her nails into one French cheek until she draws blood; and the limber dancing beauties of Phnom Penh, Hervey tells us, have their joints broken so they can perform with greater agility.

What took me aback, again and again, as I proceeded through his story, was how wisely Hervey cuts through simplistic explanations and, much like his heroine, sees through to something much more complex and riddled. The French here are often patronizing and crude, but, just as often, they’re much more sensitive and open than we might imagine; Thi-Nini is never just a silly girl — or a calculating minx — but a confounding mixture of the two. She “had learned enough about her Frenchman to understand his needs and desires,” we read at one point. But then Hervey goes on: “If she had known more…undoubtedly they would have had many arguments.”

The whole novel, as it continues, turns into a celebration of “fluidity,” the new, post-national consciousness that allows Westerners to go native to some extent, to keep setting down roots in different places and, at times, to carry the locals they meet somewhat into their own culture: in other words, just the mobile, global culture we know today, then in its first stages. And this is a matter not just of circumstance and movement but also of inner movement and sensibility. Who says, Hervey might be asking, that a young Western man cannot completely inhabit the being, in a novel, of an Eastern girl of the same age (and bring her forth with sensuality and passion)?

Notice, too — wonderfully, and very plausibly (it’s almost the story of the East right now) — how it’s the Frenchman Justin who explains to the Vietnamese woman, early on, the classic Buddhist metaphor of how a flame is passed from candle to candle as a soul moves from life to life. Notice how the constant, furious dramas of the book play out against a backdrop of calm acceptance, as if the tales of a Hardy (or an eager Hollywood melodramatist) were placed within a Confucian frame, and set against a sense of something abiding. There are flashes from the Catholic confessional here, and quite a lot of Buddhist realism and tolerance about impermanence, but in the end we move past all religions to follow a flow as all-enveloping and unceasing as the river in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha (which came out five years earlier).

Reading the book, you may not be surprised to learn that Hervey, with his gift for twisting stories and for swooning local color, found his way very quickly to Hollywood, where he had a hand in such Orientalist classics as Shanghai Express. You may flinch a bit at the “clouded, half-wistful intensity” of his prose (to borrow the phrase he uses for a young American’s eyes), or descriptions of a local girl wanting “to burn her lips in the soft rim of fire” on an American’s hair. But you will also surely note that Hervey was prescient enough to write about an American presence in French Indochina 30 years before that became the stuff of worldwide headlines.

In fact my deepest astonishment, in reading Congai, came with seeing how much it anticipates perhaps the greatest and most evergreen foreign novel about modern Vietnam, The Quiet American, by Graham Greene, the book that urchins outside the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi still try to sell visitors (in pirated editions) and the one that every wise newcomer to the country still picks up. Here in Hervey’s novel is a central Vietnamese woman, coolly judging her prospects with a variety of foreign suitors — and another Vietnamese woman who’s even more pragmatic about the market value of beauty and exoticism. Here is a young American who sounds like an Englishman and whose sovereign quality is “innocence.” Here are scenes on the Rue Catinat, the evocative center of Greene’s novel, and memorable moments of Europeans spilling out onto the hot tropical streets at night after thé dansants. Even the dedication page of Congai, with its unorthodox form and tone, is so strikingly similar to Greene’s that it’s hard not to believe that the English novelist read the rare English-language novel to be set in Vietnam when he spent time there during the last days of the French, to write his novel published in 1955.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that Greene’s heroine is called Phuong — which means “Phoenix,” as he tells us on his opening page; the symbol of the phoenix will play a crucial part in Hervey’s novel. In Thi-Linh’s trips to the cinema, in the French Prefect of Police calmly reflecting on murder (on the Rue Catinat), in the descriptions of plowmen working the fields immemorially, in an America that may wear a “stupid, grinning mask” but is something much more inside, Hervey was opening the door to the way in which we would be seeing Indochina, on the page and in our heads, well into the 21st century.

For those who weary of the account of the young American — or get distracted by the “wistful luxury of feeling in his eyes” and his “suavely muscular being” — I would simply recommend pressing on to the very end. When you get there, you’ll see that that central discussion of Pierre Loti had implications for the plot as well as for the theme of the novel that you may not have foreseen. You’ll realize that Thi-Linh’s ability to see the merits of a French perspective on Vietnam will help a Frenchman see the merits of a Vietnamese perspective on France. East and West get so mixed up — are so all over one another — that all notions of black and white (or right and wrong) dissolve. In that way, Congai is an unexpectedly fine guide to the Asia that is waiting to take in millions of new visitors next year. Those of us who write on the continent almost 90 years on are often, more unconsciously than not, following in the footsteps of an intrepid latter-day Lafcadio Hearn who intuited more than he knew. Even in his wildest moments, Hervey caught something true and lasting that those of us more than twice his age can only bow before.

Adapted from the introduction to a new edition of Congai, to be published by DatAsia this month.


Pico Iyer's most recent book is The Man Within My Head.

LARB Contributor

Pico Iyer's most recent book is The Man Within My Head.  


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!