L'Aile de feu | Wing of Fire
by Jeanne Leuba
Publisher: Librairie Plon-Nourrit, Paris
Language : French
Since the author was famous archaelogist Henri Parmentier's life companion, and an early researcher in Khmer and Cham civilizations herself, it is tempting to look for some autobiographical information behind the engrossing narrative of this portrait of a French young woman taking a new start in colonized Indochina.
In this coming-of-age novel, Jeanne Leuba portrays the somewhat naive wife of a French planter struggling with Nature to develop a plantation in the depths of South Tonkin (Vietnam). The condition of European women is depicted with lucidity, and a clear 'feminist' eye: ¨Nous nous marions comme les gamines communient, sans nous rendre compte. Si ce n'est pas pour la robe blanche, c'est tout juste! Vite, vite, se marier! Se marier d'abord, on verra après!...Après, c'est trop tard¨. [We get married very much like little girls take the First communion, without any realization. Only for the white dress, perhaps. Hurry, hurry up, get a husband! First of all, get married, later we'll see! But later, it's too late...]
This is a rare instance in 'colonial literature' in which trysts and relationships between white men and local women is considered from a female perspective, and a remarkable open-mindness, probably because Jeanne Leuba develops a rather critical approach of European wedlocks, the 'sin' of adultery and the usual machismo of French colonists and administrators. When the female protagonist asks some planter about his fascination for Asian women, he somewhat candidly replies: "Elles sont toujours caressantes, dociles, gaies...C'est comme un oiseau que l'on aurait chez soi." [They are so cuddly, obedient and merry...It's like having a bird in your home.]
Like the real Jeanne Leuba, the protagonist, Françoise, discovers ancient Cham ruins on the domain and wonders about the lost civilization of Champa. And it is during a brief yet life-changing visit to Angkor Wat and the Bayon that she realizes her love interest, her husband´s business partner, a suave French aristocrat, Jean, will remain forever involved with another woman, mysterious, strikingly beautiful and free countess Marie'Thérèse.
The trip to Siem Reap only takes up 18 pages (pp. 220-38), and nevertheless this is a pivotal moment in the narration, the realization of her unredeemable strangeness and solitude. ¨A la base d'une colonne, une danseuse céleste incline un peu sa tête, chargée d´une tiare trop lourde, et la tige onduleuse d'un lotus sort de son poing comme un sceptre charmant...Tout est splendeur, paix divine et msytérieuse douceur¨[On a pillar base, a celestial dancer slightly bends her head, bearing a too heavy tiara, and the sinuous stem of a lotus flower sprouts from her fist like some charming scepter...All is about splendor, divine peace and enigmatic gentleness.]
Angkor Database Library has recently added to its collection a specimen of Jeanne Leuba's novel first edition, dated 1920:
About the Author
Journalist, writer and poet Jeanne Leuba (8 Nov. 1882, Paris – 24 July 1979, Lettenbach, Austria) depicted in her novels the status of local and expatriate women in colonial Indochina, while getting involved into archaeological and historic research after marrrying EFEO director Henri Parmentier in 1905.
Trained in her youth to become a concert pianist, Jeanne Leuba traveled together with Parmentier to the remotest places around Cambodia and Annam, publishing a book about Angkor as early as 1914, and several studies about the Cham ethnic minority.
Recognized by Louis Malleret as 'one of the two major women colonial writers' about Indochina (with Clotilde Chivas-Baron), she set in Angkor part of the storyline for her highly-praised novel, L’Aile du feu (1922). In 1945, she was detained in the same Japanese concentration camp where famous Khmerologist George Groslier was going to perish. After Parmentier’s death in 1949, she decided to remain in Cambodia, working for local French-language newspapers and Phnom-Penh Radio. In 1959, she published in Phnom Penh 'Angkor, Guide Parmentier' (EKLIP Publishers, with photographs by Robert Dalet, Guioneaud and Manikus (EFEO photographers and researchers)). She left Cambodia in 1966, at 84 years of age, settling in Austria until she passed away in 1979.
Bookseller and collector Francois Doré (Librairie du Siam, Bangkok, Thailand), has recovered more than 40 short stories and tales authored by Jeanne Leuba before 1949, including two novels in which the author describes with caustic humor the amorous and sexual dalliances of French expats in the 1930s, Le métis ensorcelé (Saigon, Edition J. Aspar, 1941) and Panique (id,1942).
Jeanne Leuba in 1922 in Hanoi (photo coll. Librairie du Siam)