Bandes dessinées are a francophone tradition; to call them “comic books” is do to them a disservice. The English term “graphic novel” isn’t quite right either, since a bande dessinée might, as is this one, be non-fiction; and while the artwork in contemporary English-language comics is not as dire as it once was, the emphasis is, as the term implies, as often as not on “graphics” rather than work in traditional media.
Asia, of course, has its own “graphic novel” traditions, so Franco-Vietnamese bande dessinée author/illustrator Clément Baloup has, with Vietnamese Memories: Leaving Saigon, to some extent come full circle.
In the first volume of a projected series, Baloup records the stories of five emigrés, starting with his own father. They are presumably all true, or at least accurate reflections of what the various subjects told Baloup. They leave Vietnam at various times and under various conditions; some experience hardship in reeducation camps; some the terror and hardship of being one of the “boat people”; others face discrimination and alienation in French resettlement camps. The most touching of these tells the story of some teenagers who gather up their resources to leave a French camp for a week-long escape to the beach where they encounter not just the sea but also girls.
These are followed by a longer piece (a separate book in the French original) on the work of French journalist Pierre Daum who documented the story of the 20,000 Vietnamese who were effectively press-ganged by the French Government to work in French factories at the outbreak of WW2. Once France fell, they were, for the rest of the War, rented out to whomever in the south of France needed low-wage labor, particularly to grow rice in the Camargue.
These are structurally and stylistically two rather different works; one is a series of autobiographical and biographical sketches, in which the past is rendered in monochrome, the present-day in color. The second recounts the story of how the Vietnamese wartime labor came to be officially recognized by the city of Arles after decades of denial. They have been combined in English for, one imagines, publishing reasons.
France has a tradition of such things: commuters feel no embarrassment at being caught reading bandes dessinées on the train. The illustrations are often meant as art rather than commercial design. Baloup evidently works in watercolor, ink and, if I had to guess, gouache. While students can and reportedly do read these books (they have apparently been included in parts of the French secondary school curriculum), they do not appear to have been for, or targeted at, children as opposed to adults.
The treatment also seems, if not exactly French, then certainly not Anglo-American. These are historical and biographical vignettes; they do not have much of a narrative arc. Several pages, those with lots of text, are more like pages from a book with illustrations than an integrated “comic strip”. The narratives resemble, if anything, storyboards for TV news features.
The subject matter is also of course resolutely French. (Future volumes, it is intimated, will cover the US and Taiwan.) English-language readers are unlikely to be entirely au courant with the colonial context of France’s Indochinese colonies, and may miss the nuance in references to bullfights in the arena in Arles or the political leanings of the newspaper—Libération—where Daum was working when he stumbled across the story of Vietnamese forced labor. The stories in Leaving Saigon are part of a continuing legacy that France and the French need to deal with; English speakers have their own.
Americans, by the way, come off rather badly in these accounts, but Baloup has France taking point, although he is for the most part looking back more in sorrow than in anger. There is hope, too: new families, inter-cultural relationships, recovered memories, reconciliation.
It is often interesting and useful to look at Asia through a non-English, albeit still Western eye. Leaving Saigon does not disappoint. Bandes dessinées are not unknown in English translation—Tintin and Asterix being close to ubiquitous—but in Leaving Saigon, Asian readers will have a rare chance to encounter a serious contemporary work on a subject closer to home.
The English translation is less colloquial than the original French, with hélico rendered as “helicopter” rather than “chopper”. There is the occasional clunker (“When you talk about this road you helped build, you don’t insist [souligner] enough on the harm you did to the villagers!”) and some lines might have been adjusted in English (e.g. “I shared a six-bed cabin … with a few other young Vietnamese and Hindus [hindous]”, presumably Indians), especially if educational use is envisaged. These don’t get in the way of understanding but another pass through the text might have brought it closer to level of the artwork.