LE COLONIAL

By Kien Nguyen

Little, Brown. 319 pp. $24.95

Fiction about Westerners who come to a place determined to save their little brown brothers from savagery and bring them to Christianity, cricket, croissants or democracy has been an honorable and necessary part of our canon since Conrad; the best historical fiction allows us to see the patterns and attitudes of the present reflected in the events and personages of the past. In Le Colonial, Kien Nguyen attempts to open an era of Vietnamese history for us that presages three contemporary conflicts: the 20th-century war in Vietnam between Vietnamese, our own war in Vietnam and our current situation in Iraq.

The story, which begins in 1771, follows three Frenchmen -- two Catholic priests, Pierre de Behaine and Francois Gervaise, and Henri Monange, an impoverished youth who becomes Gervaise's protege. The three go (in de Behaine's case, return) to Annam, as Vietnam was then called, to convert the Annamese to Christianity -- though in the case of Francois and Henri, it is they who become "converted" -- to Annamese ways, including a respect and admiration for Buddhism, which de Behaine regards as a stupid and odious cult. The Frenchmen are caught up and become players in the Tay Son rebellion, a real revolt by impoverished peasants who wanted to make the social system more just and to reunify North and South Vietnam (Tonkin, Cochin China and Annam). The rebel guerrillas form alliances with the Northern kingdom, take the city of Hue by surprise attack and eventually march south to besiege and conquer the Southern capital of "Saygon," sending into exile the French-supported king, Nguyen Anh.

Reading about these events reminds us of the patterns we and the Vietnamese saw played out again in the 1960s and '70s -- a rerun the Vietnamese were well aware of, even if we weren't. The images of Annam devastated by a civil war are sadly resonant also. "Perhaps all the inhabitants were dead or had fled from the recent war," Nguyen writes. "In the white emptiness, they were like strands of grass, clinging to one another on the shoreline. . . . the reminders of war were everywhere -- the black smoke of burning forests, pieces of wrecked boats and ships." And what is an American reader at this point in our history to make of the nation-building zeal, the greed masked as altruism, of Nguyen's main character, Bishop de Behaine? Blind to his own flaws, the coldly ambitious, asexual de Behaine, who is based on a real historical figure, is determined to shape situations -- and a country -- to his own preconceptions. He cultivates and manipulates those Vietnamese who will help him achieve his goals, and, finally, we are told in the epilogue, he is instrumental in bringing in French troops, advisers and arms to support King Nguyen Anh, thus laying the groundwork to make Vietnam a French colony -- which will lead to the Vietnamese-American war. De Behaine's motivations are unambiguous: "The monsignor harbored little affection for Annam. His expeditions were to fulfill a higher purpose and responsibility, first to Louis XV, king of France, who was in desperate need of new colonies to augment his wealth."

Although his portrayal of de Behaine's character is one-dimensional, Nguyen chooses wisely in beginning his tale in an 18th-century France plagued by disease and poverty, all of which subtly underscores the arrogance of the colonialist who assumes the right to subjugate another culture -- and in this case an older and more gracious culture -- in the name of civilization.

Le Colonial can be read by someone with no knowledge of the history of Vietnam, America or the Middle East, simply as an exciting entertainment. Nguyen is a good storyteller, and the novel can be a satisfying read at that level -- with its love affairs, dashing rebel leaders, great battles, charging elephants, hairsbreadth escapes, dark secrets from the past to be discovered and unrequited love.

Nguyen's choice of subject matter, however, leads me to assume that he wanted the novel to be more than a potboiler. Unfortunately, its sometimes clunky language tends to keep it at that level and so prevents the history from coming to life. Too often the author as lecturer intrudes to give us the benefit of his research, and dialogue is frequently overwrought, conveying information to advance the plot without sounding like real human beings talking to each other: "You see, Father Dominique was not only the family priest for the de Charneys; he also taught Etienne fine art and music. According to the good father, the vicomte was a promising artist, blessed with nobility, wealth, talent, and handsome looks. However, all that came to an abrupt end when he was challenged to a duel by a Freemason over the daughter of an innkeeper." Occasionally, a trendy term intrudes into the story as well: haystacks, for example, that "morphed" into elephants, a word choice that turns the scene into a video game.

The author's own life demonstrates some of the costs -- and inadvertent gains -- of missionary intentions that lead to military interventions. The son of an American soldier father and a Vietnamese mother, Nguyen came to this country as a refugee in 1985, an experience that was the source of his aptly named -- and excellent -- memoir, The Unwanted, and there is much of value in Le Colonial for our history-challenged country. The novel's flaws are those of a writer learning his trade and his language, and Nguyen is to be commended for his courage in breaking the semi-autobiographical pattern of most immigrant and refugee narratives by choosing to explain his country of origin to his adopted country, and his adopted country to itself, through historical fiction. *

Wayne Karlin, the author of six novels and a memoir, edits the Curbstone Press Voices from Vietnam series.

Kien Nguyen