‘Faraway the Southern Sky’ by Joseph Andras Review: Before Hồ Chí Minh

Andras attempts to trace the time when the elusive Vietnamese revolutionary (later prime minister of Vietnam) was living under a different name in Paris

Before he became Hồ Chí Minh, Hồ Chí Minh wasn’t. Like many Southeast Asian communists, he, to use Joseph Andras’s translated (from the French) words, ‘changed names like he changed shirts’. (Guestimates, for they can be only that, suggest he used anywhere between 50 and 200 of them during his lifetime.) Largely because, as he was increasingly kept under surveillance and spied upon, he had to. Ironically, it’s these surveillance reports that form the backbone of Andras’s attempt to trace part of the time when Hồ Chí Minh wasn’t: that part when the elusive Vietnamese revolutionary (later prime minister of Vietnam) was in Paris, for some of which time he was Nguyên Ai Quôc (although the police thought he was called Antoine).

When it comes to type, Andras’s short book is as elusive as Nguyên Ai Quâc (sic); it shimmies elegantly between speculative fiction, biography, psychogeography and revolutionary tract, managing to be all and none of those things. There are moments approaching poetry too: ‘the sky is like a sea the wind forgot’; ‘a sky so white it doesn’t deserve the name’. Yet it is as much a Georges Perec- or Situationist-style accounting of the French capital, tracing locations known or alleged to be associated with ‘Antoine’, as it is an attempt at a biography of Nguyên Tat Thanh. A ‘geography of events, topology of facts’, as Andras puts it. Or, more pointedly, an investigation into the histories the city reveals and those it conceals. ‘Stonework has a cleverness to it, erasing the memory of what it took,’ Andras writes, as he performs his own act of resistance by attempting to undo this. And while it turns up the story of a Vietnamese revolutionary and his struggle to be heard (‘Europeans weren’t all that interested in Indochina’), it also performs an archaeology of rebels, exiles, forty-eighters, communards, socialist thinkers, gilets jaunes and others who have operated away from the flock. People who evaded, for a number of reasons, institutionalisation during their lifetimes and continue, for a number of other reasons, to do so to this day.

Faraway the Southern Sky by Joseph Andras, translated by Simon Lesen. Verso, £9.99 (softcover)

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