In 1939, Phạm Duy Khiêm volunteered to enlist in the French army, the first and only Vietnamese colonial subject to do so. Before the war, he had studied in Paris at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and the École normale supérieure, and had already begun to establish himself as an important francophone intellectual and writer. His military service was cut short by France’s surrender, but it nonetheless served as the basis for two autobiographical novels: La Place d’un homme, published soon after the author’s return to colonial Indochina in 1941, and De La Courtine à Vichy, a sequel that was censored by the Vichy regime and that remains unpublished today. While the first text is characterized by the narrator’s sense of honour in defending apparently universal ideals, the sequel is infused with disillusionment and even contempt in the face of French collaboration. Through an analysis of key moments at which race and gender intersect in these texts, this article argues that the narrator’s decision to volunteer reflects a desire for dissolution into an abstract ideal of universal humanity, but that this desire eventually gives way to a form of ambiguous masculinity open to identification with the feminine.
Image: Phạm Duy Khiêm/Editions PLON