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A French delegation visits Angkor Wat in the 1930s. New novel The Zero Season is set in 1949, split between a soon-to-be independent Cambodia and a Paris still recovering from occupation. Photo: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

ReviewEchoes of Graham Greene, Andre Malraux in debut novels set in French Indochina, published by Penguin Random House SEA

  • In Zero Season by Justin Clark, a French farm boy and a Cambodian student begin a gay affair in Paris, the latter drawn to his nation’s independence struggle
  • In Too Far From Antibes, a naive French journalist in Saigon investigates his brother’s murder. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American resonates in the background

Too Far From Antibes by Bede Scott; The Zero Season by Justin T. Clark, pub. Penguin Random House SEA

Since its launch in 2018, Singapore-based Penguin Random House SEA has sought out new local writing and publisher Nora Nazerene Abu Bakar has built a diverse list across genres and countries.

For those who like historical fiction with a powerful sense of place, two new novels from the publisher stand out. Both are from debut novelists and set amid the post-war anti-colonial struggles of French Indochina. And both carry their literary antecedents overtly as homages to earlier authors.

Justin T. Clark’s The Zero Season is set in 1949, split between a Paris still recovering from occupation and a soon-to-be independent Cambodia. Summoned to a funeral, Etienne, estranged from his family for being gay, is returning to his birthplace of Paris from his new life on a Picardy farm.

A crowded pavement cafe in a Paris street in the early 1950s, around the time Etienne and Samphan, the lead characters in The Zero Season, meet there. Photo: Three Lions/Getty Images

Meanwhile, a student from Siem Reap, Samphan, is becoming increasingly involved with the Cambodian independence struggle and searching for his lost sister, who disappeared in Paris a decade earlier.

Etienne is plunged back into his working-class neighbourhood of petty gangsters, squabbles and scams. Samphan is increasingly conflicted – his university education exposing him to the sexual, artistic and political freedoms Paris offers, though his conscience is troubled.

“They bring us over […] they make us watch their ballet and admire their paintings and read their books, and by the time four years have passed, we’re ready to go back home and do their bidding, aren’t we?” Meaning, of course, is he?

The two, meeting by chance, become lovers. So what are the limits of a gay rela­­tion­ship between a Cambodian and a Frenchman who are, at this time, and in this place, unaccepted by both sides? Momentary, or with any lasting possibilities?

Samphan articulates it as the “Zero Season” of the book’s title, “a rehearsal, before he steps onto the stage of history”. For he knows he must return to a new, liberated, Cambodia. It all awaits, “[…] his food, his muddy Mekong, flowing languorously under an unforgiving sun. He will see it again soon. He will see it reborn.”

The cover of Clark’s novel.
The cover of Scott’s novel.

Etienne wishes to escape his claustrophobic, threat­ening neighbourhood and return to Picardy’s rural idyll. Samphan must find his lost sister before he returns and Etienne must square a friend’s debt to a mobster. The microcosm of their relationship bonds them with the macrocosm of their predicaments.

Bede Scott’s Too Far From Antibes is set in 1951 Saigon. Jean-Luc Guéry arrives in the French-controlled city to investigate the murder of his brother. But Jean-Luc, a journalist for the little known Le Journal d’Antibes, has no investigative skills beyond having read every Inspector Maigret novel.

He is a naïf, prone to believing whatever he is told, whether by criminals, drunks or the untrustworthy forces of colonial law and order – the local Sûreté (security). Jean-Luc is too far from home, out of his depth, ill-equipped for the task, yet determined and resolute in a way perhaps only the hopeful amateur can be.

Both novels wear their literary influences proudly. Scott’s is dedicated to the memory of Eric Ambler, the 1930s progenitor of espionage novels with a keen sense of realism. His Jean-Luc sits well within the tradition of Ambler’s classic unwilling spies and amateur detectives dropped unexpectedly into dark machinations.

In The Zero Season Etienne is gifted by a former lover a copy of André Malraux’s The Conquerors (1928), a study in contrasting older Chinese methods of struggle posited against the new European revolutionary ideologies. As with Etienne and Samphan, the intertwining of the personal and the political, the macro and the micro, is the core of Malraux’s novel.

A street in the Chinese district of Saigon, then in French Indochina, in the 1930s. Photo: adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images

And both books clearly have the distinctive scent of Graham Greene about them. The Quiet American (1955) resonates in the background of Jean-Luc’s Saigon excursions, while Etienne’s Catholic-induced angst is the common stuff of Greene and “Greeneland”.

It would be nice to think these novels will be read symbiotically. Those who appreciate Greene, Ambler, Simenon, Malraux, will find in them referrals to familiar themes. Those coming to these novels fresh may be inspired to delve back into the authors’ inspiration and discover new work from old writers.

Both novels, different though they are, echo that popular post-war literary conundrum asking, via their protagonists, if we really know ourselves, our families, lovers, countries, as well as we think we do. These novels both suggest that we rarely do, and that testing our assumptions against the truth can be a harsh awakening.