(Feature Image Source: HERE)
Norman Lewis, English journalist, travelled to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 1951. A Dragon Apparent is an amusing, appalling, and moving tale of a region on the verge of war.
Norman Lewis’s book on Indochina is not merely a traveller’s tale; it is a report on colonial controversies. As he makes his way through the hierarchies of the French empire no one escapes his examination: those members of the military force who rejoice at violence against civilians, those who put their career and safety in jeopardy to preserve ethnical minorities from the disruption of Western policies, and those who Lewis wittily names “Hamlets”, who do not seem to fit on either side, and whose doubtful expressions testify for the growing hesitation over the meaning of colonial rule. Unfortunately the hesitation we witness in A Dragon Apparent does not appear as the early blossoms of a process of decolonisation, on the contrary, it assumes the aspect of a melancholic awareness that freedom is still far along the way, as terrorism and military action on the part of the Viet Minh become more frequent and violent.
This is the true essence of Norman Lewis’s talent: he is able to convey the crude tranquillity of the jungle, his fascination over the intricate coiffures of Vietnamese women, while remaining unflustered by the continuous menace of being captured. So that the cruelty of war and the blissful quietude of Indochinese culture seem to paradoxically coexist in his journey, solely interrupted by the narrative’s tone, which swings between the dry and sober accounts of colonial rule and the poetic emotive descriptions reserved to the region’s cultural tradition. A tradition that has miraculously resisted the influence of the West after seven decades of occupation, and that is now showing its last rays of light before being swallowed up by the devastation of war.