Phạm Duy Khiêm. A Man Apart

Julia C. Emerson, “Phạm Duy Khiêm. A Man Apart”, Moussons [Online], 24 | 2014. 

Drawing on contemporary documents, on the recollections of his friends, family and students, on his own words and on his voluminous correspondence, this article explores how Phạm Duy Khiêm, who had thoroughly absorbed and loved French culture, but who nevertheless remained deeply Vietnamese, rooted in Confucian and Buddhist values, saw himself at a time of deep political and cultural polarization. It seeks to answer such questions as: What beliefs and aspirations informed his behavior? How did maintaining the tension between French and Vietnamese cultures sustain him? Did it eventually undermine him, putting him at odds with his times and sometimes with himself? Did his refusal to deny either of the cultures that defined him affect his ability to participate actively in the history of his time?

Over the years the story of Phạm Duy Khiêm’s life, held hostage to the competing ideological factions and fashions that he sought to avoid, has become something between a caricature and a cautionary tale, reflecting little of the complexity of the man or of the challenges facing him. What little scholarship has been devoted to his life and work is plagued with contradictions and inaccuracies. A lack of reliable biographical information has influenced the quality of the criticism of his literary œuvre, of the appreciation of his place, albeit minor, in the politics of his time and of the assessment of the motivations behind some of his more controversial decisions. One of the most promising intellectuals of his generation, he has fallen into posthumous neglect, written out of history for the sin of stubbornly making his own path through the world and refusing to compromise, often to his own detriment. No one could claim him as their own. He refused to be pigeonholed. The result was obscurity, although his name occasionally resurfaces, sometimes in the service of some academic theory, sometimes as an anecdote, usually apocryphal 1, about a difficult eccentric.

1 One tired story which is an utter fiction is that he refused to see his friend Georges Pompidou after Pompidou became President.

Reliable information on his life is hard to find. Consequently, I have concentrated my research on what facts about his life I could assemble from contemporary documents, on the recollections of his friends, family and students, and, most importantly, on how Phạm Duy Khiêm saw himself and his relationship to both French and Vietnamese culture. Taking into account my unwillingness to adopt a theoretical or ideological stance (Goscha 2004: 6),2 this seemed like a reasonable place to start to understand this complex, enigmatic and often exasperating man.

2 Christopher E. Goscha, 2004, “The Modern Barbarian: Nguyên Van Vinh and the Complexity of Colonial Modernity in Vietnam”, European Journal of East Asian Studies, 3, 1: 6. Goscha says of anti-colonialist approaches “that they tend to tell us little about who these individuals really were, what they wanted to do at the time, how they went about doing it or whether they succeeded or not.” I would expand this generalization to include all ideologically based attempts to understand an individual, particularly one as elusive as Phạm Duy Khiêm. The results are inevitably impoverished.

People who knew Phạm Duy Khiêm insist that he was both deeply French and deeply Vietnamese and always true to himself no matter what the cost, but the price was high. As Karl Asoka Britto points out when discussing the traumatic effect of intercultural contradictions, it was a time when the “diverse and fluid sites of identification currently associated with interculturality were mapped far less clearly for those individuals who found themselves […] caught between the opposing poles of the colonial system, which sought to maintain rigid distinctions between colonizer and colonized”. (Britto 2004: 5)

There was at that time no place for a person who fully inhabited and dominated two cultures. One was expected to choose. Not to do so could and often did prove dangerous.

It is fair to ask what the effect was on an individual who had internalized the norms of a culture that nevertheless, in practice, considered him less than equal, whose most cherished values did not apply to him. What defenses could form a bulwark against such a damaging double message? In the case of Phạm Duy Khiêm it is important to ask what were the beliefs and aspirations that informed his behavior? How did he see himself in relationship to French and Vietnamese culture? How did maintaining the tension between French and Vietnamese cultures sustain him? Did it eventually undermine him? How did his refusal to deny either of the cultures that defined him affect his ability to act? How did he see his role as an emissary of both cultures? Did he eventually live up to the Confucian virtue of quân tử, the ideal of the “superior man”? I will attempt to answer some of these questions, and, at the very least, provide material that could be helpful to others in drawing their own conclusions.

Karl Ashoka Britto, in his book Disorientation, France, Viêt Nam, and the Ambivalence of Interculturality, asks: “Can the intercultural subject be understood as more than a site of cultural contestation, as anything other than a confrontation between incompatible binary opposites?” (Britto 2004: 3). In the case of Phạm Duy Khiêm, who had so thoroughly absorbed and loved French culture, but who nevertheless remained deeply Vietnamese, rooted in Confucian and Buddhist values and a profound love and admiration for his own culture, this question is of paramount importance. At a time of deep political and cultural polarization he chose for the most part to go against the tide, to bridge the divide rather than take sides. This stance and some of the decisions arising from it put him at odds with his times and sometimes with himself. He escapes easy classification, and therein lies my interest.

That he was the product of a French education, and not just any French education, but the best French education that could be had at the time, is inarguable. That he loved French culture and had absorbed it from the earliest days of his schooling is clear. That this association with French culture was not a choice in any real sense of the word is also true. It was simply one of the central givens of his life and in no way implied a renunciation of his other, Vietnamese, heritage. As a bright colonial child with a father who wanted the best education possible for his son, his path was laid out for him long before he was in a position to choose. However, to say that “he was French to his fingertips” as one person3 I spoke to recently did, is to misunderstand him. This description ignores the deep connection that he maintained with his birth culture and the profound ways that that connection influenced him and sustained him. Yes, he did speak French without any perceptible accent.4 Yes, he did understand Marivaux and French grammar better than most Frenchmen, but that by no means implied that he had severed his relationship with his Vietnamese heritage. Unlike the Vietnamese families that could correctly be called “francisée”5 and where French was spoken even at home, his home culture was traditionally Vietnamese, despite his father’s modernist tendencies and western dress. Even a cursory reading of his unpublished manuscript “Ma Mère”,6 the most “Vietnamese” of his books makes that clear.

3 Pierre Heisbourg, a former student of Phạm Duy Khiêm at École des Roches, during a conversation on April 9, 2013.

4 Archives INA Radio, Bibliothèque nationale de France, “La Vie des Lettres”, France 3 nationale, interview Roger Grenier et Phạm Duy Khiêm, 4 juin 1957. If you are curious to hear Phạm Duy Khiêm’s voice, this interview is very clear.

5 The term francisé can most accurately, though not elegantly, be translated as “frenchified.” It applies to those colonials who had more or less abandoned their own culture and adopted French culture. Many spoke French at home and were unable to read or write in Vietnamese. For example, Madame Nhu, the sister-in-law of Ngô Đình Diệm the first president of The Republic of Vietnam, wrote all her speeches in French and had someone translate them. This did not apply to Phạm Duy Khiêm, who, although he came from a politically and culturally progressive family, was nevertheless culturally Vietnamese in his upbringing. 

6 Phạm Duy Khiêm, “Ma Mère” (unpublished manuscript, 1974).

Because he received a thoroughly French education, Phạm Duy Khiêm was spared the racist content of the textbooks which were aimed at teaching “[indigenous] students to master the events of their daily lives, to react against their imperfections, […] to shake them out of their apathy and to cure their paralyzing superstitions.”7 By his own admission, however, even though he was not exposed to the those textbooks, he was already well aware of the existence of racial and cultural differences as a very young student.

7 “[…] apprend à ses élèves à dominer les incidents de leur vie quotidienne, à réagir contre leurs défauts […] à secouer leur apathie et à se guérir de leurs superstitions paralysantes.” Eugène Pujarniscle, 1918, “M. Dufresne : Binh-yén. Lectures françaises”, Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient, 18: 23.

From the age when I began to leaf through the French books, even before I could understand them, I was already accustomed to separating the two races by the difference in their physical appearance: on the one hand my countrymen and on the other the ‘occidentals’, represented most notably by the French policemen on the streets of Hanoï as well as the bearded director8 who could be seen crossing the courtyard of the Collège du Protectorat.”9

8 This director may well have been Henri Donnadieu, the father of Marguerite Duras, who was director for at least part of the time that Phạm Duy Khiêm was a student at the Collège.

9 “Dès l’âge où je commençais à feuilleter les livres français, avant même de bien les comprendre, j’étais déjà habitué à séparer les deux races, ne fut-ce que leur aspect physique: d’un côté mes compatriotes, de l’autre les ‘occidentaux’ représentés notamment par les quelques agents de police français qu’on voyait dans les rues de Hanoï, et aussi par le directeur à la barbe bien fournie qui traversait parfois la cour de Collège.” Phạm Duy Khiêm, 1964, “Discours d’Usage”, speech given at the ceremony for the distribution of prizes, École alsacienne, Paris, (June 27 1964),

In the same lecture he mentions the absurdity of having recited “Our ancestors, the Gauls” (“Nos ancêtres les gaulois”),10 but says that although this may have appeared scandalous to Frenchmen living in France and to others, for him it was just another beautiful French sentence and not a source of confusion. In the same vein, the illustration of Vercingetorix with his voluminous beard and mustache kneeling before Caesar did not bear any resemblance to his imagined ancestors, whose beards would have been as sparse as those of the men of letters of his own time. In his words, the deeper reason for this lack of confusion on his part was the fact that: “Never did I see the French treat my countrymen on an equal footing, as men akin to them, belonging to the same race or a race on the same level as theirs, so that I had never been able to imagine for one or the other, the French or the Annamite, any kind of common community whatsoever, let alone attributing to them the same ancestors.”11 Nevertheless, he succeeded in being first in his class at the exclusive French Lycée Albert Sarraut in Hanoï and was accepted as the first Vietnamese student to attend Lycée Louis le Grand and, later, École normale supérieure in Paris.

10 At the time French school children recited this phrase, which was historically suspect even for them, but ridiculous when recited by an African or Asian child.

11 “À aucun moment il ne m’a été donné de voir l’ensemble des Français traiter l’ensemble de mes compatriotes sur un pied d’égalité, comme des hommes semblables à eux, appartenant à la même race ou à une race de même niveau que la leur, si bien que je n’ai jamais pu imaginer pour les uns et pour les autres, Français et Annamites, une communauté quelconque, loin de pouvoir leur attribuer les mêmes ancêtres.” Phạm Duy Khiêm, “Discours d’Usage” : 2.

Although Phạm Duy Khiêm wrote and spoke effusively about his years at “Normale Sup”, he left fewer indications of his impressions and recollections of his years at Lycée Louis le Grand. Fortunately, Léopold Senghor wrote about his time there. Since they were both “colonials” and since they were close friends, one can imagine that their experiences would have been similar. Senghor described his memories of his professors and his education with these words:

I may have mispronounced their names. It makes no difference when I remember, with the clarity of youth, their voices, their gestures, their tics, their clothes, and, oh yes! their lessons. And that interest, that solicitude that they brought to the couple of “exotics” that we were: Phạm Duy Khiêm, the Indochinese; Louis Achille, Aimé Césaire, Auguste Bouclon, from the Antilles. What first attracted my attention was this interest, this kindness towards their students of color. This refusal of racial discrimination which, little by little, became in fact a discrete favoring without the least favoritism. This was for me the most important aspect of the French spirit. Of my lessons, what I have retained is principally the spirit of the method that they taught […] a desire for clarity, objectivity and effectiveness. Whether it is a translation into Latin, a translation from Greek, an analysis in French, not to mention history and philosophy, our teachers inculcated in us, throughout the year, more than just formulas. […] Thus, week after week, year after year, my knowledge of the Greco-Latin spirit, of which French civilization is the principal heir, progressed. I was able, little by little, to decipher the meaning of History, […] the significance of Philosophy […] the dialogue between subject and object and matter and spirit, between reason and action and between Man and Nature.12

12 “Peut-être écorché-je leurs noms. Qu’importe quand je me rappelle, avec la netteté des souvenirs de jeunesse, leurs voix, leurs gestes, leurs tics, leurs vêtements, oh! surtout leurs leçons. Et cet intérêt, cette sollicitude qu'ils portaient aux quelques "exotiques" que nous étions : Phạm Duy Khiêm, l’Indochinois, Louis Achille, Aimé Césaire, Auguste Boucolon, les Antillais. Ce qui attira d'abord mon attention chez mes maîtres ce fut cet intérêt, cette gentillesse portée à leurs élèves de couleur. Ce refus de discrimination raciale, qui, peu à peu, devenait, dans les faits, discrète faveur, sans favoritisme au demeurant. C’était là, pour moi, le premier trait du génie français. Des leçons de mes maîtres, j’ai retenu, essentiellement, l’esprit de méthode […] une volonté de clarté, d’objectivité, d’efficacité. Qu’il s'agisse de thème latin, de version grecque, d’explication française, sans parler d’histoire ou de philosophie, nos maîtres nous inculquaient, tout au long de l'année […]. Ainsi, semaine après semaine, année après année, j’ai pu avancer dans la connaissance du génie gréco-latin, dont la civilisation française est la principale héritière. Ainsi, j’ai pu, peu à peu, décrypter le sens de l’Histoire […] le sens de la Philosophie, qui réside dans la dialectique : le dialogue du sujet et de l’objet, de l’esprit et de la matière, de la raison et des faits, de l’Homme et de la Nature.” Léopold Sédar Senghor : “le poème d'une vie”, “Du Sine à la Seine,”

It is not hard to see why this sort of education would have been irresistible for a colonial student, and I have included this long quote as a counterpoint to the description of attitudes in Indochina earlier in this paper. Colonial students encountered, once in France, an undreamed of academic freedom as well as a social situation far more inclusive and tolerant of difference than in the colonies.

Openness to the colonial students was not universal, however. Phạm Duy Khiêm mentions other situations in which race and the misperceptions that accompany racial and colonial stereotypes played a part. Initially, as a “Chinese”, he was the object of a certain curiosity. He describes a situation in which another student asked him how long he had been in France, and then expressed his astonishment that not only did he speak good French but that he was also a student of literature and not science:

“What? Literature! You are turning all of my ideas inside out!!!” He didn’t say another word to me, swallowed his chicory-coffee, and left, not happy at all. It is important to mention that he was a student of science, but the students of literature expressed themselves just as naively and were not above asking the very French question: “How can one be yellow and at the same time a normalien?”13

13 “« Comment ? Littérature ! Tu bouleverses toutes mes idées !!! » Il ne me dit plus rien, avale son café-chicorée et s’en va, pas content du tout. Il faut ajouter que ce camarade était un « scientifique ». Mais les « littéraires », s’ils ne s’exprimaient aussi naïvement, n’étaient pas sans se poser la question bien française : « Comment peut-on être jaune et normalien ? »” Phạm Duy Khiêm, 1943, “Quelques souvenirs sur Normale Supérieure”, Indochine: Hebdomadaire illustré, December 30: 15.

In the same article, Phạm Duy Khiêm describes the process by which he came to know himself during his years as a normalien:

It is among my friends that little by little I became aware of who I was: different from all of them. In contact with them, through comparison, I became conscious of who I was, of the ways in which I had less than they, and of what I had in addition to what they had. I heard things about myself during those years, directly and otherwise, that had a clarity and a depth that have never been surpassed. I will add that these judgments bore no dishonor for Annam and our race, far from it. Did they only help me to define myself? They also allowed me to respond in a certain way, to live in a certain way, to feel, to be as I had never been able to before without them. Every plant needs its particular environment in order to blossom, and as one of the students who preceded me once wrote of the school: ‘It is one of the rare places in France where one can show oneself to be truly intelligent.14

During his time at École normale supérieure we find the first mention of Phạm Duy Khiêm’s efforts to maintain an equilibrium between his two cultures and to translate the one for the other. Among other things, he gave lectures on Vietnamese poetry and interpreted Vietnamese customs for his classmates, such as how one addresses a friend as “elder brother” and refers to oneself as “younger brother” instead of using “tu”.15

15 The person to whom he gave this explanation was the fiancée, and later wife, of Robert Bouvier, one of his classmates. In a scene in Nam et Sylvie he describes meeting her in Bouvier’s room and talking to her. In a conversation on July 20, 2012 Bouvier mentioned that he thought that Phạm Duy Khiêm had been half in love with his fiancée.

Typical of his effort not only to translate but also to find common ground between the two cultures is a lecture he delivered at La Maison d’Indochine in 1933 and which is included in Mélanges (Phạm Duy Khiêm 1942a). This same lecture, which he invited “Sylvie”16 and her mother to attend, is also mentioned in Nam et Sylvie (Nam Kim [Phạm Duy Khiêm] 1957: 24-28). In it he expresses his disdain for a book called Homme jaune et femme blanche17(Yellow Man and White Woman) written by a French woman, Christiane Fournier, who had briefly visited Viêt Nam. In this unconvincing, even bizarre, intercultural bodice-ripper with an improbable plot, a young French girl marries a Vietnamese communist, and, because she is unable to produce a child, is branded “the demon of the Occident.” Various murders ensue including that of the French girl, which supposedly leaves the way clear for the husband’s concubine to conceive. The author portrays the husband and other natives as being barely human. This lecture illustrates what for me is one of the most interesting but elusive qualities of Phạm Duy Khiêm’s approach to engaging with cultural differences. He leaves one in no real doubt as to where he stands, his choice of subject alone speaks volumes, but he is not strident. All the while he is looking for the commonality that underlies apparent differences. In the end he takes a passage from this strange book, omits a few words, changes a name, and, improbably, finds echoes of The Tale of Kiều (Truyện Kiều),18 the most important and most beloved of all Vietnamese literary works. What could have been an anti-colonial polemic becomes an effort to bridge the gap by finding a common human connection.

16 “Sylvie” is the name that Phạm Duy Khiêm, who used the pseudonym “Nam Kim” for himself as author, gave to the young student with whom he fell in love while studying in Paris and about whom he wrote in Nam et Sylvie (Paris: Librairie Plon, 1957).

17 Interestingly, this book has recently been reprinted by Harmattan. The language of the blurb leads me to think that very little has been learned in the intervening years.

18 The Tale of Kiều (Truyện Kiều), Viêt Nam’s epic national poem was written by Nguyễn Du (1766-1820) and was inspired by a Chinese story. Written in 3,254 verses, it tells the story of the life of Thúy Kiều, a young woman who sacrificed herself to save her family.

Phạm Duy Khiêm returned to Viêt Nam following his aggrégation in 1935 and took a position teaching French, Latin and Greek at Lycée Albert Sarraut. It cannot have been easy for him to leave France and return to Viêt Nam. This necessity had already proved the undoing of his private life, insofar as it had been clear from the beginning that he would not be able to return to colonial Viêt Nam and its prejudices, both in the French and in the Vietnamese communities, with the woman he loved. He could not, as many in his position did, remain in France, because his duties towards his family required his presence in Hanoï. By most standards he had already been away from his responsibilities for too long. There were his father’s debts to pay and his mother and siblings to support.

He would be separated from the intellectual life he loved and the friends he had made. His voluminous, even compulsive, correspondence could not possibly fill the gap. He must have felt that a door was closing behind him and wondered if it would ever open again. Any doubt I might have had about the difficulty of this transition was put to rest when I read the unpublished manuscript of “Ma Mère”, the book he wrote based on the journals he kept around the time of his mother’s death in 1950. The suffocating life in an extended family all living under one roof, the petty jealousies, the disagreements about money, the constant visitors and the gossip were unbearable.

In 1939 Phạm Duy Khiêm made a decision which he claimed he had made long before, in anticipation of war (Phạm Duy Khiêm 1941: 12). This decision provoked not only misunderstanding but also hostility among his contemporaries both in Indochina and in France. Although many Indochinese were conscripted into the French Army and others who had French citizenship volunteered, Phạm Duy Khiêm is said to have been the only Indochinese not having French citizenship to have volunteered to serve. He served at first as a simple soldier in a native regiment and then began officer training as one of thirteen Indochinese candidates. This training was interrupted by the rout of the French army just six weeks after the beginning of the war and by the pandemonium that ensued.

He explained this decision both in person and, most notably, in his book De Hanoi à la Courtine (1941), in terms of quân tử, claiming that, having shared the good times in France, he was obliged to share the bad ones. In one conversation he told his friend Ngô Đình Nhu that when your neighbor’s house is burning you are obliged to bring him a bucket of water whether you like him or not.19 We find the most complete explanation in a letter to “M. Tran Trong”20 written during the voyage to France:

You remember that in 1914 my poor father had put forth the idea of a platoon of volunteers from the lettrés. But that had nothing to do with my decision. I have acted alone, not wanting to involve anyone else or waste any time. […] I understand those of my compatriots who object. […] My response is simple: “We may have grounds for complaint and still fight for France when she is in danger.” What Annamite would not understand this statement? Who among us would forget the our chivalrous traditions and the old idea of quân tử, the nobility of the well-born man.” 21

19 An email from Vu Ngoc Quynh sent to me on July 10, 2012 describes an interview he conducted on November 4, 2010 with Đặng Vũ Nhuế, a former student of Phạm Duy Khiêm at Lycée Albert Sarraut. “J’ai vu récemment Đặng Vũ Nhuế, qui m’a relaté en détail le dernier repas offert à Phạm Duy Khiêm à Hanoï par ses amis en 1939 avant que Khiêm parte à Hải Phòng et de s'embarquer pour la France pour s’engager dans la guerre (de la France contre l’Allemagne). Ce repas avait eu lieu chez Hoàng Xuân Hãn en présence de son frère cadet Hoàng Xuân Bình, Nguyễn Mạnh Tường, Ngụy Như Kontum, Ngô Đình Nhu. Et ce fut ce dernier qui lança à Khiêm cette fameuse apostrophe: « Notre maison brûle depuis longtemps. As-tu versé ne serait ce qu'un seau d'eau ? »Hoàng Xuân Bình a rapporté cette anecdote à Đặng Vũ Nhuế chez celui-ci à Paris 13 lors d'un repas en 1992. Đặng Vũ Nhuế a écrit cet épisode dans la revue Hành Thiện numéro 17, mars 1994.” “I recently saw Đặng Vũ Nhuế, who told me a story about the last dinner that Phạm Duy Khiêm’s friends gave him in Hanoï before his departure from Hải Phòng to take part in the war. This meal took place at the home of Hoàng Xuân Hãn. His brother Hoàng Xuân Bình was also present, as were Nguyễn Mạnh Tuờng, Ngụy Nhu Kontum and Ngô Đình Nhu. The latter was the one who said bitterly: ‘Our house has been burning for years. Have you brought even one bucket of water?’ Hoàng Xuân Bình told this anecdote to Đặng Vũ Nhuế at the latter’s home in Paris 13 during a dinner in 1992. Đặng Vũ Nhuế wrote about this episode in the revue Hành Thiẹn, number 17, March 1994.”

20 This name is written as it appears on page 17 of La Place d’un Homme. It is incomplete, and I am reasonably sure that he is referring to the old friend of his family Trần Trọng Kim. Here, as in various versions of the manuscript “Ma Mère”, he took little or no trouble to disguise the names of actual people.

21 “Vous vous rappelez qu’en 1914 mon pauvre père avait émis l’idée d’un peloton de volontaires intellectuels ; […] J’ai agi seule, ne voulant entraîner personne, ni perdre de temps. Je vous remercie de me laisser suivre mon destin, après m’avoir désapprouvé tout d’abord. Je sais que du fond du Coeur, vous ne pouvez pas aimer les Français. […] Ma réponse est simple : « Nous pouvons avoir à nous plaindre, et cependant combattre pour la France quand elle est en danger.  » Quel Annamite ne comprendrait ce langage ? Lequel d’entre nous aurait oublié nos traditions chevaleresques et la vielle notion du ‘quân tử, la noblesse de l’homme bien né ?” Phạm Duy Khiêm, 1958, La Place d’un Homme, De Hanoi à la Courtine, Paris : Plon, pp.17-18. This book was originally published in 1941 with the title De Hanoi à la Courtine by Éditions Le Thang in Hanoï.

He then goes on to remark that gestures of this sort are made without thought of any sort of recompense, but simply because they are the right thing to do under the circumstances. However he does intimate later in “Ma Mère” that he would not then make the same decision as he did in 1939 (Phạm Duy Khiêm 1974: 141).

Phạm Duy Khiêm returned to Viêt Nam in 1941, following his demobilization. Most accounts agree that he did not take up his old post at Lycée Albert Sarraut. After the events of December 19, 1946,22 he retired from public life to pursue his writing. To support himself he taught private students. During this time he steadfastly refused to align himself with any of the players on the political scene. Once again, when pressed by a French friend, he justified his action, or rather his abstention, in terms of quân tử, replying to his old school friend Pierre Cuenat, who had urged him to play a more active role in events without participating directly in the war, that his attitude of non-involvement was the only dignified stance (Cuenat 1976).

22 On December 19, 1946 the Viêt Minh detonated explosives in the power plant in Hanoï in what was the opening salvo of the First Indochina War, thereby giving France the welcome excuse to re-occupy Indochina.

He had begun work on a book of Vietnamese folk tales while he was waiting in Marseille for transport back to Indochina after the war, but the first book to be published was De Hanoï à la Courtine (Septembre 1939–Juin 1940), Lettres de Nam Liên recueillies par Pham Duy Khiêm in 1941.23 The letters in the book were drawn from letters of his own that he had recopied into his private journals, but which he attributed to a fictional soldier, Liên. He continued to work on his collection of folk tales, and the first volume, Légendes des Terres Sereines, was published in Hanoï in 1942. This book of stories interspersed with reminiscences and translations of Chinese and Vietnamese poetry won the first Prix Littéraire de l’Indochine in the same year it was published. In 1942 Phạm Duy Khiêm completed the manuscript of “De la Courtine à Vichy (Mai-Juillet 1940)”.24 This is the account, again drawn from his letters and journals and transparently autobiographical, of his last few months of military service. By this time he was an officer in training. His description of the discrimination within the ranks, of the armistice, of the ensuing pandemonium and the obviously inept leadership of the French army, of which he presents a restrained but nevertheless relentlessly negative account, proved too much for the Vichy government of Indochina. The book was censored. Less elegant than its predecessor but more vivid and deeply felt, the entries move from portrayals of hungry, wet, tired soldiers pushed beyond their limits to lyric glimpses of a landscape still fresh and beautiful in the late spring light. The last book of Phạm Duy Khiêm’s to be published in Viêt Nam, again by G. Taupin et Cie in Hanoï, was La Jeune Femme de Nam Xuong in 1944.25 This second volume of Vietnamese folk tales was combined with the stories from the original Légendes des Terres Sereines when they were published by Éditions Mercure de France in Paris in 1951.

23 De Hanoï à la Courtine (Septembre 1939-Juin 1940), Lettres de Nam Liên recueillies par Pham Duy Khiêm was re-published by Plon in Paris in 1958 with the title La place d'un homme, De Hanoi à la Courtine.

24 Pham Duy Khiêm, 1942, De la Courtine à Vichy, (juin-juillet, 1940), unpublished manuscript.

25 Pham Duy Khiêm, 1944, La Jeune Femme de Nam Xuong, Hanoï: Imprimerie G. Taupin et Cie.

Phạm Duy Khiêm’s decision to retreat from public life when confronted with an unacceptable political situation was not without precedent in Viêt Nam and other Confucian societies such as China, particularly among the literati. As a matter of fact this strategy was considered a virtue. Whereas for those engaged in political or military life, this refusal could take the form of revolt, the literati were more likely to chose to retire, even to become recluses, and to paint or write. A particularly noteworthy example of this decision to retreat occurred in China following the demise of the Ming Dynasty in 1644 when a considerable number of artists made this choice rather than give their support to the Manchus.

It is tempting to fault him for not having done anything at all to protest the atrocities that were committed at this time, but the truth is that he did protest in his own way, a way that made sense to him. During this time he refused to write textbooks for the government.26 To protest against the French and the atrocities after the Battle of Hanoï, he spoke only Vietnamese with friends with whom he formerly spoke French.27 This renunciation of the language that defined his entire intellectual life, this voluntary silencing of himself was, I think, a mute recognition that his usual efforts to find a middle ground, to translate these two cultures for each other were of no use in the present situation, with the entire country in flames and France and Viêt Nam in a fight to the death. However its subtlety was understandably lost on those around him.

26 “Si j’avais mis, ces derniers années, mon nom sur un ouvrage quelconque, au bas d’un article de journal ou de revue, même sans encenser la France, j’aurais aidé le corps expéditionnaire. Je m’étais bien engagé pour la France, mais c’était en 1939. Maintenant je n’ai même pas le droit d’aider à propager la culture française : la guerre sévit. Mes compatriotes meurent tous les jours, même ceux qui ne sont pas derrière le Viêt Minh de gré ou de force.” Phạm Duy Khiêm, “Ma Mère”, page 141.

27 Ibid.: 137.

While it is true that there are times when there are no good choices, others, some of them friends with the same education and cultural background, did choose. The results of their choices were often no less unsatisfactory than Phạm Duy Khiêm’s choice to abstain. At least one, corrupted by power, eventually ended up dead in the back of an armored personnel carrier, and another sacrificed a brilliant career as a philosopher to join the Viêt Minh, only to find himself sidelined to the country for having voiced his disagreement.28

28 The men referred to are, respectively : Ngô Đình Nhu, the brother of Ngô Đình Diệm who was Phạm Duy Khiêm’s friend from their school days in France and the philosopher Trần Đức Thảo. 

Nevertheless, refusal to take sides politically with factions he found unacceptable was not the only moral choice. He could have spoken out forcefully in his own right. It might have been better to err on the side of passion rather than fastidiousness. It would have been dangerous, but it would have been admirable and would have left him less misunderstood.

Phạm Duy Khiêm may not have been a significant presence on the political stage, but his absence was significant. His name was known. His prestige due to his brilliant academic career was enormous. Yet he demurred. As Trinh Van Thao points out in his discussion of the intellectuals who joined the Viêt Minh, “an extraordinary self-affirmation and individualism or a tremendous combination of circumstances would be necessary to go against the tide [and] would mean to lose face, to cast oneself definitively out of one’s group.” (Trinh Van Thao 2002: 270-271.) He sees their choice as idealistic rather than cowardly, an affirmation of their love of country, of their class and of Confucian political culture. Arguably, the same could be said about Phạm Duy Khiêm who, also not a coward and also out of a certain idealism and love for Confucian values, went against the tide and made himself an outcast by choosing neither side. He simply found all of the alternatives lacking and, rather than compromise, he abstained. To have thrown his lot in with one or the other would have required a willful blindness. He refused both the comfort of ideology and the tainted familiarity of the restored monarchy.

Unlike his father, Phạm Duy Tốn, who was deeply engaged with events of his time Phạm Duy Khiêm rejected a similar engagement. If his father had lived,29 he might well have followed in his footsteps. On the other hand it is important to remember that Phạm Duy Tốn, although he was a translator, had not, from his earliest childhood, been educated in the French system, as had his son, who fully inhabited both cultures. As a result Phạm Duy Tốn’s choices were less fraught with ambiguity.

29 Phạm Duy Tốn died on February 25, 1924 when Phạm Duy Khiêm was 16, leaving the family burdened by debt and reduced to poverty. This led to Phạm Duy Khiêm’s being the first Indochinese student to be granted a scholarship to Lycée Albert Sarraut, where he then finished his studies as a boarding student.

In 1954 Phạm Duy Khiêm joined the government of Ngô Đình Diệm, first as Secretary of State and later as Chargé d’Affaires. Although I was not able to find any significant information about his activities during the time when he held those offices, one story from that period, told to me by Bùi Xuan Toàn30offers an insight into how he would later view his role as ambassador. He was, of course, anxious to see the end of the French presence in Viêt Nam, and he was no advocate for the French Union. Nevertheless he felt that it was important to recognize that for better or for worse the two countries had for a time shared a common history. I will use Bùi Xuan Toàn’s own words:

Concerning the ceremony at the time the French departed, Khiêm, who was Secretary of State to the President, made a proposal for the changing of the flags in front of the Palace of the Government: Once the French flag had been lowered, it should be raised again at the same time as the Vietnamese flag and it should be left flying there for the rest of the day. The government accepted the proposal the evening before the ceremony, but during the night the priests in the presidential entourage came to say that it shouldn’t be done because, according to them, superstitious people would believe that it was a sign that the colonists would return […] In order for the ceremony to proceed Khiêm had to argue with Diệm for a long time about the reality of the friendship between the two peoples, who in spite of the vicissitudes of history, had lived together for a century, and also about the simple nobility of the gesture. And the next day, all the French generals and representatives were surprised and moved.”31

30 Bùi Xuân Toàn is a former pupil who was taught privately by Phạm Duy Khiêm in 1948.

31 “Concernant la cérémonie du départ des autorités françaises, Khiêm (en ces temps là, Secrétaire d'État à la Présidence avait proposé pour le changement des drapeaux devant le Palais du Gouvernement : qu'une fois le drapeau français abaissé on le hisse de nouveau au sommet en même temps que le drapeau vietnamien et qu'on le laisse y flotter pendant toute cette journée. La proposition a été acceptée par le gouvernement la veille de la cérémonie, mais dans la nuit des prêtres de l'entourage du Président sont venus dire qu'il ne faut pas le faire car selon eux le peuple superstitieux croirait que c'est le signe du retour possible des colonialistes […] Khiêm a dû argumenter longtemps auprès de Diệm sur la réalité de l'amitié de nos deux peuples, qui malgré les vicissitudes de l'Histoire, ont vécu ensemble pendant le siècle et aussi sur la noblesse simple du geste, pour que la consigne soit maintenue. Et le lendemain, bien sûr, la surprise et l'émotion étaient vives chez tous les généraux et représentants français.” Bùi Xuân Toàn, email to Julia Emerson July 21, 2012.

Another, more literary, indication of the philosophy that underlay his approach to Franco-Vietnamese relations can be found in a 1938 radio broadcast.32 In order to give his French audience a glimpse of the soul of his country, he begins by telling a story of the unrequited love of a young fisherman for the daughter of a mandarin.33 In his interpretation of the story he speaks of the encounter of these two destinies, of their common debt, of the larger human debt to life, the debt that everyone pays when walking the difficult path that each must follow on this earth. He adds that man does not live one life. An encounter between two destinies is a moment in a chain, a point on a circumference, as incomprehensible and inescapable as the rest of existence. Without digressing into the obvious Buddhist underpinnings of this interpretation, or its relationship to his novel Nam et Sylvie,34 it is possible to see the connection with certain statements that Phạm Duy Khiêm made from time to time concerning the residues and continuing connections between Viêt-Nam and its various conquerors including the French. These are, needless to say, the thoughts of an intellectual and not a politician.

32 Phạm Duy Khiêm, “Une Belle Légende du Viêt Nam”, was first envisioned as a radio broadcast in 1938 and then was re-printed in Le Monde colonial illustré, n° 179, mai 1938. It can be found on the ALAS web site:

33 “Le Cristal d’Amour”, (The Crystal of Love). Another version of this story can be found in a collection of Phạm Duy Khiêm’s writing, Mélanges, 104-114.

34 In Nam et Sylvie Phạm Duy Khiêm, using the pseudonym “Nam Kim” tells the story of his star-crossed love affair with a young French student at the Sorbonne which was doomed in part by the impossibility of her returning with him to colonial Indochina.

Phạm Duy Khiêm was appointed High Commissioner (Haut-Commissaire) from South Viêt Nam to Paris sometime in the fall of 1954 and took up his duties on the first of January 1955. Later the same year he was appointed the first Ambassador from South Vietnam to Paris. During his brief tenure as Ambassador he strove to, and mostly succeeded in, normalizing relations between South Viêt Nam and France. The Archives diplomatiques of the ministère des Affaires étrangères et européennes at la Courneuve contain several letters from this period which testify to the difficulty of his work, particularly the inevitable conflicts that continued to plague relations between South Viêt Nam and France because of France’s perceived duplicity concerning relations with the Viêt Minh. There was endless wrangling over whether the Viêt Minh should be allowed to open a trade commission in Paris, along with the constant misunderstandings that arose from the ill-disguised arrogance of the representatives of the former Mère Patrie35 and the extreme sensitivity of the South Vietnamese.

35 The following description of Ngô Đình Diêm in the Archives diplomatiques at la Courneuve is a good example of the opinions expressed by members of the French diplomatic corps: “Son physique menu, quelque peu contrefait, que ne semble pas avoir atteint le terme normal du développement.” “Physically tiny, somewhat deformed, does not give the appearance of having attained normal development.” Unfortunately, I have lost the number of the dossier.

In April 1957 Nam et Sylvie, his autobiographical novel about a love affair during his student years in Paris with a student at the Sorbonne was published by Plon. Drawn from his own diaries and from the letters from his lover that he had copied into his journal before returning them to her at the end of their affair, the book was awarded the Prix Louis Barthou by the Académie française in the same year. Nam et Sylvie was published using the pseudonym “Nam Kim”, since at the time Phạm Duy Khiêm was still ambassador and it was felt that some of the more explicit material in the book, including the history of an abortion, was unsuitable for an ambassador. It appears, however, that very little trouble was taken to disguise the identity of the author, and in a contemporary interview on Radio France internationale (RFI), the interviewer identifies him as the ambassador of South Viêt Nam,36 a lack of caution that may, in part, have been responsible for his losing his post.

36 Archives INA Radio, Bibliothèque national de France, “La Vie des Lettres”, France 3 Nationale, interview Roger Grenier et Phạm Duy Khiêm, 4 juin 1957.

On the fifth of November 1957 Phạm Duy Khiêm received the title of docteurhonoris causa from the University of Toulouse in recognition of his literary œuvre. The two speeches that accompanied his investiture, his own and that of Professor André Lebois, deserve to be considered at length because of what they can tell us about the prevailing attitudes in the country in which Phạm Duy Khiêm would be consigned to spend the rest of his life. It is a peculiar document that cannot simply be read as an expression of mutual admiration.

The first speech, given by Professor Lebois, is a masterpiece of fawning condescension. After declaring himself unfit for the honor of introducing Phạm Duy Khiêm, he proceeds to prove it by launching into a reverie about a glorious past when little Breton peasant children like himself dreamed of their far flung possessions in Indochina; how, returning in the evening with their cows they could imagine that they were holding a bamboo pole from Annam with sacks of rice hanging from both ends; how they learned that they possessed not only two deltoids but two deltas. Marx and Hitler, it seemed, had unfortunately rendered this former “politics of love” (politique d’amour) outmoded. He pronounced Francis Garnier (who had taken it upon himself to launch an attack on Tonkin and capture Hanoï and was ultimately hacked to death for his trouble) his hero, and claimed not to have felt the least hatred as he dreamed of the Pavillons Noirs (Lebois 1957: 5-6).37 Only the “mud of Điện Biên Phủ” intervened to spoil this idyll.

37 André Lebois, “Le Viêt-Nam et la culture française”, allocutions prononcées le 5 novembre 1957 [par M. le Professeur André Lebois et M. Pham Duy Khiêm] à la séance solomnelle de rentrée de l’Université de Toulouse, Vichy : Wallon, 1957, pp. 5-6. The Pavillons Noirs were the troops of the Chinese warlord Liu Yongfu who came to the aid of the beleaguered Vietnamese.

Phạm Duy Khiêm brings things back to reality with a reminder beginning in the first line of his speech that Viêt Nam is now, thanks to the actions of the great powers at the Geneva Conference, a divided country and that it was in a spirit of sadness that he had taken up his position as ambassador in Paris. He had dreaded opening the French daily papers, wondering what hostile, erroneous news he would find.

He continues with an oblique reference to the fact that there will always be a certain nostalgia attached to his not having been able to join the ranks of the professors he is addressing, but he does not mention the reasons why he, as a former colonial, is excluded.38 He then goes on to answer a journalist who had written of his “choice” as a Vietnamese author to use French to express his deepest feelings, an expression of gratitude that had been echoed by Lebois. He points out that it was hardly a choice. If, after having received a French education in Viêt Nam, one had wanted to continue to study, and then only if one had received permission, the one choice open to a student was to take a boat to France. He then goes on to say that the French language is still alive and well in Viêt Nam after the departure of the French, just as Chinese culture had continued to be present after that conqueror had departed. He wonders what new language might take the place of French, perhaps thinking ahead to the already growing American involvement in Southeast Asia. He asks if Viêt Nam might one day impose its language on the universe. There is always an undertone of irony, a reminder of the actual state of affairs both formerly and in the present. He makes fun of Lebois’ contention that he had joined the French army as a chivalrous gesture to rescue his former lover, and says that Lebois might not have been so enthusiastic if he had been able to read “De la Courtine à Vichy”.39 I wonder how much of what he expressed resonated with his audience in the way he seems to have meant it to, or if he had again uttered a criticism that was just too subtle to be taken in by anyone who wasn’t utterly attentive both to the man and to the circumstances. The tone of his remarks no doubt was influenced by the fact that at this time, although it was not public knowledge, he was aware that he was going to be replaced as ambassador.

38 Prior to 1935, colonial students were not allowed to take the same examinations as their French counterparts. Starting in 1935, the year of Phạm Duy Khiêm’s agrégation, colonial students were allowed to take the same examination, but they received a “bis” next to their grade. This indicated that they were not citizens and would not be allowed to teach in French institutions at the level to which they would otherwise be entitled and they would be paid far less than they would have been had they been French. Phạm Duy Khiêm, unlike Senghor, refused to apply for French citizenship.

39 Phạm Duy Khiêm, De La Courtine à Vichy (juin-juillet 1940). This book, which followed De Hanoi à la Courtine (re-published in France in 1958 with the title La Place d’un homme) presents a raw and unflattering picture the French in the days leading up to and immediately following the armistice.

Almost immediately after receiving his docteur honoris causa, on November 16, 1957, Phạm Duy Khiêm was elected Grand officier de la Légion d’honneur40 in recognition of his efforts to restore amicable relations between France and Viêt Nam. I do not know if he delivered a speech on this occasion. If he did, the text no longer exists in the archives of the Légion d’honneur, which is a loss. This was to be his last public honor.

40 Foreigners can be awarded this honor if they are perceived to have served France or to uphold French values.

When Phạm Duy Khiêm decided to join the government of Ngô Đình Diệm in 1954, he did so thinking, as many did at the time, that it offered the best possibility of achieving a unified, democratic Viêt Nam. In the end, the government of Ngô Đình Diệm proved to be corrupt and disappointing. In 1957, when Phạm Duy Khiêm became aware of the corruption, he made his views known so forcefully he was dismissed from his post as Ambassador.41He once again chose a method of protest that he considered a dignified expression of quân tử, and, instead of availing himself of the money in the Ambassadors’ slush fund, chose instead to sell all of his possessions and live simply. The subtlety of his protest was of course lost on the “parvenus de pouvoir”42 whom he had hoped to shame with this display of individual probity.

41 Other things probably had a hand in his dismissal, including the mention of abortion in Nam et Sylvie, his dislike of Mme Nhu, and his having accepted the honor of being named Grand officier de la Légion d’honneur without first having asked permission from the South Vietnamese government.

42 “parvenus du pouvoir, peu cultivés malgré les apparences… mesquins de nature plutôt que volontairement méchants.” Phạm Trọng Nhân , “ Phạm Duy Khiêm Is No More”, page 4. The Phạm Trọng Nhân piece “Pham Duy Khiêm is No More” was given to me by Eric Henry, a professor of Asian Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who translated it from the Vietnamese. It was given to Eric Henry by Pham Duy, Vietnam’s foremost musician of the 20th century, who was the brother of Pham Duy Khiêm. Eric Henry has translated Pham Duy’s unpublished memoir. Phạm Trọng Nhân was a South Vietnamese diplomat.

The France he found himself in after he left his post as ambassador was neither the inclusive France of his student days nor the cosmopolitan world of his days as ambassador. He was a poorly paid anomaly with no professional future, an author whose books no longer interested publishers. After a stint working at Hachette, he found, with the help of a friend, a position at the élite École alsacienne in Paris, where he stayed for perhaps five years, from around 1960 until perhaps 1965,43 and where he delivered the address at the annual distribution of prizes in 1964 (Phạm Duy 1964: 2). He used this opportunity to educate his young listeners on an aspect of Vietnamese culture and politics that was very much in the news.

43 Every one of the private schools I contacted had lost or destroyed the records that would have shown the dates of his employment.

What at first seems like a boilerplate end-of-year harangue quickly takes an unexpected turn, one that reveals much about him and his choices, his politics and his relationship with his Vietnamese roots. Once again it shows his willingness to translate and mediate between his two cultures and to challenge stereotypes. He begins with an unremarkable warning about the dangers of believing everything on the television news, using as his example the different perceptions in the West and in Viêt Nam of the Buddhist monks whose self-immolations in the streets of Saigon had recently transfixed and shocked the world. For months the French newspapers had presented these events as a religious war, a conflict between Buddhists and Catholics, and then suddenly the Diệm government fell and there was a spontaneous outpouring of joy among Buddhists and Catholics alike. The Americans, he says, had not brought down the Diệm government, “because America in its entirety could not have brought down that family of ice and steel without the sacrifice of these men with shaved heads who quietly sat in the middle of the street and died with their lips sealed.”44 He chastises those who decry these acts of defiance for their violence:

No, there was no violence. No one was subjected to violence by those who died without speaking a word. The word ‘suicide’ is inappropriate too, since in this case there is no evidence whatsoever of despair. On the contrary there was even less reason for a well-known weekly to describe these sacrifices as ‘a barbarous act that revolts our sensibilities.’ Far from being acts of violence, they are the elaborations of a culture and an asceticism; they are a witness to pure abnegation, to a complete renunciation of self allied with the most effective spiritual realism. Because, and listen well, without doing any harm to your adversary, you triumph over him, in his own consciousness.45

He then brings the focus of the discussion back to the heroes of classical Greece and of French history, including the heroes of the Resistance, who betrayed no one, even in death. Once again bridging the two cultures he equates Socrates, Joan of Arc and the monks who doused themselves with gasoline.

As long as he had a more or less well-defined context in which to live his life, whether as dutiful son, student, author or ambassador, Phạm Duy Khiêm was able, though not always gracefully, to manage conflict and contradiction. As those structures crumbled, it became increasingly difficult for him to keep his hold on his sense of self.

In 1957, no longer protected by the aura that had surrounded him as ambassador or as an elite student, he found himself unmoored in a country that was not his own. In the face of repeated refusals on the part of publishers, even his identity as a writer was called into question. His moods, even before his dismissal, had become less stable. He lashed out at perceived slights. Though he continually sought comments on his work, he often turned them away with ill-disguised scorn.46 In the wake of misunderstandings, when his friends withdrew, he peppered them with letters asking why he had not heard from them. He wrote those of his friends47 who had shunned him while he was ambassador, trying to re-establish contact and was met with silence. Though many of his old friends remained faithful and understanding, even they admit that continuing the friendship was hard work. His handwriting, which had been controlled and reasonably legible began to unravel.

44 “Ne dites pas que ce sont les Américains qui ont renversé le gouvernement de Saigon, car l’Amérique tout entière ne serait jamais venue à bout de cette famille de glace et d’acier, sans le sacrifice de ces hommes au crane nu qui allaient tranquillement s’asseoir au milieu de la rue pour y mourir les lèvres closes.” Phạm Duy Khiêm, 1964, “Discours d’Usage”, page 4.

45 “Non ! Il n’y a pas eu violence, personne n’a subi de violences de la part de ceux qui mouraient les lèvres closes. Il ne convenait pas non plus d’employer le mot ‘suicide’ sans préciser qu’on ne saurait découvrir, dans notre cas, la moindre trace d’un désespoir quelconque. Au contraire ; il fallait encore moins imprimer comme l’hebdomadaire illustré bien connu : ‘une barbarie qui révolte notre sensibilité’. Loin d’être un signe de barbarie, ces sacrifices volontaires sont le fruit élaboré d’une culture et d’une ascèse. Ils témoignent de l’abnégation la plus pure, d’un renoncement total à soi, allié au réalisme spirituel le plus efficace. Car – suivez moi bien – sans faire aucun mal à votre adversaire, vous triompher de lui, dans sa propre conscience, et l’instant même de votre immolation, grâce à cet argument sans égal et sans réplique, cette protestation suprême.” (Id.)

46 He repeatedly called Denise Horel, who was his senior and was doing him the favor of helping with the editing of Nam et Sylvie, “une petite fille irréfléchie”! (“a careless little girl”).

47 The rejection that must have stung him the most was Robert Bouvier’s refusal to answer his letters. M. Bouvier himself expressed sadness for the “disease of dogmatism” that had kept him, as a communist, from honoring what had been their deep friendship, going back to their days together at Lycée Louis le Grand and École normale supérieure. M. Bouvier showed me the one post card that he had kept: “Une fois de plus je cherche à te trouver. Je suis dans un château, non en propriétaire ou en invité, mais en prolétaire stipendié. J’y tapirise, comme du temps de notre jeunesse []. Tu oses donner ton numéro de téléphone: attends-toi à m’avoir au bout du fil un jour prochain. Je veux te revoir souriant comme autrefois.” “Once again I am trying again to find you. I am in a château, not as an owner or a guest, but as a venal proletarian. I am tutoring, as in the days of our youth […]. If you dare send me your telephone number, you will find me on the other end of the line the next day. I want to see you smiling the way you used to in the old days.” Phạm Duy Khiêm’s reference to himself as a “proletarian” was no doubt an effort to humorously find common ground with his old friend. Conversation with Robert Bouvier, July 20, 2012.

The country that had been his muse became his jailor. Returning to Viêt Nam was not an attractive option. He chose to stay in France and did what he could to support himself. As his disillusionment grew, he bounced from school to school, each one farther removed from Paris, returning infrequently to the city he loved. He suffered the taunting of spoiled and lazy students48 and was paid a pittance for his work.49 His decision to bury himself in the Sarthe50when he retired from teaching further isolated him.

48 “I did not know it at the time, but I believe he was asked, against his will, to have dinner with the pupils, in the refectory. He was as always impeccably attired and sat in the middle of one of the dozen or so tables each seating about 10 people. He would smile benevolently and would not talk much, with the noise level and clutter and brouhaha of pupils from age 12 to 18 or so. He shunned alcohol (he seemed to have no vices) and his eating manners were very refined. As his straight and sober attitude was possibly perceived as a sign of haughtiness, pupils at the neighboring tables would snicker, and this could build up to a joyous and cruel game of taunts. The one I remember most would be a breakout of a chant: “Ping-Pong, lime à ongles” (Ping Pong, nail file) repeated over and over because Khiêm would sometimes be seen filing the nail of his little fingers (not at table or in full view). Khiêm would simply stiffen and shake his head ever so slightly. The house manager would peer up from his meal and show his disapproval, but would do nothing to stop it.” Pierre Heisbourg, email to Julia Emerson, July 2, 2013. Père Davoust, the director of Collège Saint Michel des Perrais, the last school at which Phạm Duy Khiêm taught, also mentioned an incident when he was taunted and a student pinned something to the back of his coat.

49 Père Davoust was distressed at the discrepancy between his salary and those of the French nationals. His efforts to remedy the situation came to nothing, and eventually Phạm Duy Khiêm approached his old friend Pompidou directly. This resulted in an offer of a position in the French school system, which Phạm Duy Khiêm rejected, feeling that, as a former ambassador, he could not work for the French government. Eventually he was offered, and accepted, a financial arrangement that allowed him to purchase his home in the Sarthe.

50 Père Davoust found the decision astonishing, particularly because Phạm Duy Khiêm had asked to be allowed to remain at the school until the end of his life in return for a small monthly payment.

It is difficult to sustain a sense of self in the absence of support, in a place where nothing mirrors who you are. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty says: “Calling into question what my presence to myself teaches me would result in the loss of the foundations of all my certainties.”51 Phạm Duy Khiêm felt that sense of himself called into question at every juncture, and the result was a slow internal collapse. As he sank deeper into depression, he clung to his Confucian rigidity. His pride prevented him from asking his friends for help. Unable to bend, he broke. When his strength failed him, he chose the time of his exit.52

51 “Sous peine de perdre le fondement de toutes mes certitudes, je ne peux révoquer en doute ce que m’enseigne ma présence à moi-même.” Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 1945, Phénoménologie de la perception, Paris: Éditions Gallimard, page 496.

52 On December 2, 1974, shortly after leaving a hospital where he was being treated for depression, Phạm Duy Khiêm committed suicide in a shallow pond behind his home in Montreuil-le-Henri in the Sarthe in western France.

Phạm Duy Khiêm’s life is defined as much by what he did not do as by what he did do. He was not a coward, and it can hardly be seen as a moral failure not to have joined the Viêt Minh, whose totalitarian sub-text he recognized from the beginning, nor was it a mistake to avoid the restored monarchy. Nevertheless, those were not the only choices for someone, particularly a writer, who refused active political engagement. The moral failure, if there was one, was not to have spoken out more forcefully for what he did believe in. It is not necessary to belong to a political faction in order to register one’s horror or disgust. The very fact of being unaligned can add legitimacy to a declaration. In De Hanoi à la Courtine he wrote: “There is a danger; a man stands up. Why demand to know his reasons? It is rather for those who remain quiet to tell us their reasons for doing nothing.”53 Through the excesses of the Decoux government as well as those of the Viêt Minh, the Americans and the South Vietnamese, through famine and the horrors of thirty years of war, he never once took a bold stand. Finally, on his return to Viêt Nam in 1968 to bear witness to the carnage at Hué he could not remain aloof. Nevertheless, one short statement54 could legitimately be seen as too little too late. Had he spoken out earlier, had he registered his horror at other atrocities on both sides of the conflicts, he might not have succumbed to isolation and the feeling that his life had no purpose, that his usefulness to his country was over. He might have achieved the immortality that he craved. He might not have ended up an inaccurate footnote in a story of someone else’s life. It is tempting to wonder what role the lifelong balancing act of maintaining two cultural identities had in his inability to speak out.

53 Il y a péril, un homme se lève – pourquoi lui demander des raisons ? C’est plutôt à ceux qui se tiennent cois à fournir les raisons qu’ils auraient pour s’abstenir.” Phạm Duy Khiêm, La Place d’un Homme, De Hanoi à la Courtine, page 12.

54 In 1968, following the Tet Offensive, Phạm Duy Khiêm made a trip to Hué to witness the aftermath of the battle. He wrote a short denunciation of the carnage, blaming the North Vietnamese. He had hoped that this might be a prelude to his re-entering the South Vietnamese government, but nothing came of it.

To return to my concern about the wisdom of trying to tie a life to a theory, I would answer: A life is. It is not something that stands for something else. It is a creative act fraught with inconsistency and wrong turns as well as triumphs. To deny the possibility of agency would amount to a double colonization and bring us back to the dilemma that Eduard Said described in his seminal work, Orientalism (Said 1979). It would deny that men or cultures can exist and define themselves in their own right. Phạm Duy Khiêm chose how he was going to define and live his life. As influenced as he may have been by circumstances, he was not just a victim. His decisions put him at odds with his times, and perhaps at odds with himself, and no doubt contributed to his ultimate collapse, but they were his own, and that, in itself, is something.


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