“This book,” starts the introduction, “was written by a man who did not exist. Despite this obvious handicap, Alfred Raquez was extraordinarily prolific.” Raquez was in fact a man on the lam: his real name Joseph Gervais, a lawyer from Lille, who got into a spot of bother—fraud, it seems—and decamped to the Orient, as it was then called, to avoid arrest and prosecution.
Raquez nevertheless hid in plain site: he traveled widely and wrote a clutch of books (including In The Land of Pagodas: A Classic Account of Travel in Hong Kong, Macao, Shanghai, Hubei, Hunan and Guizhou), hundreds of newspaper articles and was even awarded a medal of honor by the French War Ministry. Exactly what he did for a living isn’t clear: he seems, like many expats that wash up in Asia, to have had a finger in this or that business. Maybe the writing made money.
Nor is it clear why the French colonial government in Indochina summoned him in late 1900 by telegraph from the “plush Club Hotel, near the French Embassy on the Bund of the foreign settlement of Yokohama” to join an expedition to troop around Laos. But it did, and he went.
The appeal of the book is probably the irrepressible Raquez himself.
Laotian Pages is the somewhat uncategorizable tale of that trip. Raquez sailed from Japan to Hue, changing boats a couple of times along the way, and thence went overland to Savannakhet on the Mekong, continuing up the river to Vientiane. From Vientiane, he makes several large loops through the hill country, passing through Luang Prabang a couple of times, and finishing up in Phnom Penh some eight months after he set out.
It reads like a diary, but was serialized after the fact in 170 installments L’Avenir du Tonkin, a daily newspaper, and then published as a book in 1902. Raquez must have taken copious notes. It is travel-writing after a fashion, but the detail becomes repetitive and tedious. Raquez makes a stab at ethnography, but this was still a bit early in the day for this, and analysis isn’t Raquez’s forte. It is also a work of propaganda, documenting France’s Laotian possessions for the record and justifying France’s rationale for being there in the first place.
This genesis means that, among other things, the book is far too long: a contemporary editor would cut it way back. Raquez mostly observes and comments: if he engaged anyone he met in in-depth conversations, they are not recorded. Nor is it very well-written. This is not the fault of translators: the French version is available on-line and they seem to done a good of rendering the original. Raquez is partial to question and exclamation marks, the verbless ejaculation, the pointless aside and the shows of erudition: the quotes run from Horace and Cicero to Molière, Flaubert and French operetta, while Laos is continually (and incongruously) compared to every place from Switzerland to the Maghreb. The use of the present tense can make the account seem somewhat breathless.
The book is of course of academic interest, both for Raquez’s detailed (if not always objective) observations of customs, dress, festivals, ruins, temples, and the like, as well as for its first-hand look at the philosophy behind French colonialism. Indeed, there were so few French in Laos at the time, one has to wonder what they just weren’t turfed out. Raquez seems to to earnestly believe, and perhaps with some reason, that the French presence did in fact protect the Laotians from other powers in the region, notably the Thais, and if that one had to be “protected” by anyone, better the French than the British.
The appeal of the book to the general reader is probably Raquez himself, who is irrepressible. He likes his champagne (and complains bitterly when the case they had left behind in Vientiane had been drained by woodlice. He had clearly lived well back in France, or if not, at least knows how to talk the talk.
For all the racist, sexist and patronizing commentary notwithstanding—he was a creature of his age, after all—Raquez has great affection for the Laotians and evidently wishes them well. And some of the commentary may not be quite as bad as it first appears: the “savages” in English would be “sauvages” in French; one might suppose that Raquez used the term it is more Rousseauian sense of people who hadn’t yet been exposed to the wonders of champagne and the corruption of commerce.
We might as well be in France.
But Raquez is at his best when casting a gimlet eye at his fellow Westerners. Of his fellow passengers on the ship out of Yokohama, he writes:
Aboard are some 100 first-class passengers, almost all of them American.
In the cabin opposite mine, whose door is ajar, are two young women with strange, puffed-up, haggard eyes. A Chinese boy brings them two bottles of Schlitz beer and enormous glasses, then emerges a few minutes later with glasses and bottles … totally empty. In the morning! This promises to be interesting.
All day long, both women, barely clothed and lying on their bunk in their cabin, conscientiously drain the content of a procession of flasks of whisky and bottles of beer. They do not leave their small room, for fear of becoming seasick, perhaps. But we are traveling on a millpond.
The brief sections on Hong Kong and Macau section are similarly wry. “The conquest of the Philippines by the Americans,” he notes, “has given rise to a considerable flow of travelers” with the result that hotel prices had almost doubled since his last visit just a year or two previously. “Tiffin at the Peak Hotel,” he writes, “is best forgotten.” In Macau, he is taken to the
fan-tan gambling houses, the notorious establishments that make Macao the Monte Carlo of the Far East…. The district of the casas de jogo sparkles with light. Admission is free everywhere. Curious crowds may circulate around the tables. There are many Chinamen, but few Macanese. Two houses, both first-class according to the sign attached to the lantern, are especially welcoming to Europeans.
Raquez is treated as a paid-up member of Macau high-society. “We might as well be in France,” he says: the ultimate compliment.
Back in Hong Kong, people are worried about the outbreak of the Boer War and the officers are being sent to Africa. But the locals are phlegmatic, and put the developments in context of the housing market:
“Whatever happens,” a most gracious female resident of the Peak tells me, “if the officers go, housing will be less difficult to find. I hope to be finally able to leave the house where I have been forced to live for over a year for want of anything better.”
Plus ça change …
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.