I met Bon on the other side of passport control. We had at last stepped foot on la Gaule, as my father had taught me to call France in his parish school. It was fitting, then, that the airport was named after Charles de Gaulle, the greatest of great Frenchmen in recent memory. The hero who had liberated France from the Nazis while continuing to enslave us Vietnamese. Ah, contradiction! The perpetual body odor of humanity! No one was spared, not even the Americans or the Vietnamese, who bathed daily, or the French, who bathed less than daily. No matter our nationality, we all become accustomed to the aroma of our own contradictions.
What’s wrong? he said. Are you crying again?
I’m not crying, I sobbed. I’m just so overcome to be home at last.
[...] Oh, Saigon, Pearl of the Orient! Or so it was called, presumably by the French, using a term of endearment that we ourselves had adapted, for there was nothing the people of a small country liked better than to be flattered, so rarely did it happen. But sometimes we were not just the Pearl of the Orient, and sometimes the Pearl of the Orient did not even refer to us. I had heard the Chinese of Hong Kong claim that their port was the Pearl of the Orient, and when I was in the Philippines, the Filipinos insisted that Manila was the Pearl of the Orient. Colonies were a pearl choker adorning the alabaster-white neck of the colonizer. And sometimes a Pearl of the Orient could be a Paris of the Orient as well. The Parisians and the French and just about everyone meant that as a compliment, but it was a backhanded compliment, the only kind a colonizer could give to the colonized. After all, as the Paris of the Orient, Saigon was just a cheap imitation of haute couture.
But it seemed bad manners to bring up these issues when all the Chairman and his committee wanted was to enshrine the beauty of our culture and share it with others, even if staging a culture show was really an acknowledgment of one’s cultural inferiority. The truly powerful rarely needed to put on a show, since their culture was always everywhere. Americans knew their culture was ubiquitous, whether burgers or bombs. As for the French, they exported the Parisian Dream, a street show for tourists who went gaga over wine and cheese and accordion music. Mentioning none of this, I volunteered at the meeting’s end for the song-and-dance routines, betting that any hashish-smoking bohemians would be found there. I volunteered Bon for the dancing and singing as well, even though he clearly did not look like a dancer, and he certainly could not be a singer, not after I spoke on his behalf and explained that he was mute. This, too, was Bon’s idea.
I was in no condition to talk about plans or think about them, and yet an hour later there I was thinking as I sat in an RER train car rumbling toward a northern suburb. While I stared out at the grim prison blocks of apartment buildings and tried to hold myself together, I wondered if it was true, if the Eiffel Tower was just a Gallic erection thrusting forth from the supine French body, shooting off bursts of clouds, seen and invisible at the same time.
Was it so obvious that it was not obvious?
Was the French empire simply exposing itself for all to see?
Was the Eiffel Tower any different from the Washington Monument, the white missile erupting from the American capital, foreshadowing all the nuclear missiles buried in silos across the American landscape?
My neighbor got up and moved to another seat.
We learn from those mistakes. You yourself are making a mistake of judging the revolution too soon.
Too soon? I was flabbergasted. You read what they did to me—
I didn’t say that was justified. What I’m saying is that all revolutions have excesses. It’s in their nature. People are too exuberant, too passionate. They get carried away. Feelings run high. And sometimes the wrong people are damaged. But you have to put yourself and what happened to you aside. You have to take the long view. Look at America. No one remembers now what happened to the Americans who chose to side with the British king. Should the American Revolution not have happened, or should we condemn it because all those people were exiled? Or look at the French Revolution. The Terror was unfortunate, but look where we are now. Revolutions need to be judged fifty years later, a hundred years later, when the passions have cooled and the revolution’s accomplishments have had the time to take root and flourish.
I won’t be alive by then. How convenient.
That night, after we returned to my aunt’s apartment, I lay on her sofa, disturbed by the sounds emanating from my aunt’s bedroom. Even at two in the morning, my aunt and the lawyer made quite a bit of noise as I lay there in the dark, still wearing my pants and shirt. I pulled the blanket up to my chin and thought about Bon killing Man and me making love to Lana, all while listening with mild terror to the noises from behind my aunt’s door. I had heard sounds coming from behind that door before, with BFD or the Maoist PhD, but those were muted and familiar. Mostly the sonic disturbance came from my aunt’s bed groaning, a chorus that varied depending on the guest. BFD sprinted or galloped, getting to his destination as quickly as possible; the Maoist PhD was a flaneur, occasionally brisk but generally meandering. BFD finished with a guttural grunt, an exclamation point marking the end of History! The Maoist PhD concluded with a drawn-out, meditational sigh, an ellipsis indicating the unknown future yet to come . . . As for my aunt, she rarely made noise, except for some muted moaning and panting. Based on the audible evidence, she seemed to be a spectator at a sporting event, cheering occasionally at a good play. She must have been watching football, because once or twice I heard her cry out, GOOAAAAALLLLLL! or something to that effect. At first the sounds she and the men made bothered me, but soon it was her silences that captured me. Once I even timed the gap between one noise she made and the next—four minutes thirty-two seconds, with her finally murmuring on the thirty-third. Why so quiet? What was she thinking? Or feeling? In those fertile absences of sound, a disturbing vine grew in my mind, its sinews suggesting that perhaps over my many encounters with women, there were silences that I had not heard . . . because all I could hear was myself.
Reluctantly listening to my aunt respond spontaneously to the humorless and handsome lawyer, I suddenly felt that nothing could be trusted anymore. Did the women really mean it when they said I was the best, that what had occurred was the best, or even simply that they enjoyed it? What was it that Lana had told me in our postcoital minute? That was utterly amazing. Had she been lying? Was I more akin to BFD and the Maoist PhD than I realized? I had thought that my aunt was one of those people who simply did not verbally express herself when making love. But no! Whatever was happening was drawing forth an onomatopoeia of pleasure from my aunt that made me deeply uncomfortable. Why was I not aroused? It was a terrific performance, the handsome and humorless lawyer playing my aunt expertly. I should be excited!
Even in this rather incongruous context, BFD gave off an air of casual brilliance and cosmopolitanism, with his pink trousers, white shirt unbuttoned to the sternum, lime-green sweater draped over his shoulders with its arms loosely tied over his chest, monogrammed handkerchief, gold Rolex, slightly worn espadrilles, and sockless white ankles. In this waiting room of average men, he was matched in his meticulous grooming only by the gentleman standing up as we came in. He bore the distinctive markings of one of France’s threatened minorities: a capitalist, a kind of creature rarely seen in such splendor in the rougher neighborhoods of Paris in which I passed my time. This specimen flaunted the plumage of a tailored plaid suit, a tasteful tie in a fat Windsor knot, gleaming cuff links, polished wingtips, and a copy of Le Figaro, with the biggest bulge in his sleek profile not in the front of his pants but the back, where a thick wallet shielded his ass from being kicked. Only his heels showed signs of wear, having been used to grind down the hopes and dreams of the working class. While the American capitalist with his generously cut suit and expansive belly enjoyed gorging on the blood of the people, the slim and aristocratic French capitalist represented capitalism’s charming and elegant side. On the one hand, the ugly American, who did not care what he ate so long as he ate too much of it, especially gigantic slabs of still-bleeding red meat. On the other hand, the chic Frenchman, who preferred the refined cruelty of foie gras.