My cinema was a “Ma,” she wrapped me in her mucous membranes. She shielded me from the sun, from the force of visibility. Life was being played out on the screen, a life before death. People fought there, or else slept together. They cried and sweated, and the screen remained dry. The cinema, its stage, had no depth, but it did have its own light source.
This is how Anh Nguyet the protagonist of The Naked Eye describes her world of escapism through the movies, and only Catherine Deneuve movies to be exact. Although I myself have an affinity for the beautiful icon of French cinema myself, it is nothing compared to our young Vietnamese narrator who seems only to experience and understand life through the world of Deneuve’s oeuvre. Tawada takes us through Anh’s story in thirteen chapters, each titled after a different Deneuve movie. And it’s not just about Deneuve, her movies serve as vehicle for all the other things that seem to be happening in novel—escapism, allegorical references to communism, kidnapping, subjugation, sexual ambiguity and a fair amount of resigned desperation.
All of this seems like the ideal makings for an engaging and original read, and at times, it is. But what plagues this novel from the beginning is the lack of emotional engagement by the narrator. Anh, who is still in high school and the best in her school at speaking Russian, is handpicked to attend the International Youth Conference in Berlin to deliver a paper she wrote in Russian entitled, “Vietnam as a Victim of American Imperialism.” Within the first ten pages she is kidnapped by a German student who plies her with vodka and then takes to his apartment in Bochum, which is six hours away from Berlin. Anh says that she wants to go home, but Jörg, her captor, tells her she is pregnant with his child. They become lovers and she waits in his apartment all day long for him to come home. She writes a letter to her family saying she has been offered a scholarship and that is why she is not coming home. What is strange is that there is no sense of urgency for Anh to get home. Finally, she learns one night on a double date with Jörg that there is a train that stops in Bochum on its way to Moscow. She finds the train and ends up in Paris where she spends the next six years of her life.
She meets a blond prostitute, Marie, in the chapter entitled, “Zig Zig.” She has a brief sexual encounter with her but they end up living together. Anh spends her days reading old issues of Ecran magazine looking for anything relating to Catherine Deneuve. She has no job and does not go out in the sunlight. She merely survives with Marie:
Marie was not an abductor, she was my protector. She protected me by ignoring me. She acted as if she were unable to see me, or as if I were a wildflower that just happened to be growing in her garden. If only I’d been able to exchange a few words with her. I couldn’t understand her language, and she even seemed to be withholding it from me.
Clearly, there is desire on Anh’s part to communicate, but she never makes that commitment. She wanders the streets and goes to Catherine Deneuve movies. Once while she is line, a fellow Vietnamese woman that she met on the train to Paris recognizes her. Anh is ‘mesmerized’ by her melodic way of talking and decides to go stay with Ai Van and her French, much older husband, Jean. She leaves Marie without a word and stays on the couch of the couple. She watches them come and go and goes to the movies. Exasperated by Anh’s lack of initiative, Ai Van tells her there is a job available with a Chinese doctor that will use her skin for cosmetic experiments. Anh obliges without a struggle and Tawada compares this to Deneuve’s vampire role in Hunger. Other than the comparison and the synopsis of the plot by Tawada, the parallels of Anh and Deneuve’s movies are not drawn well enough. It becomes merely a plot synopsis of each movie and less and less about Anh. Maybe this is intentional, but it is disturbing as well. I felt, as a reader, that I was waiting for a reaction from Anh—to life, her situation, her loss. But she drifts and the only thing Tawada gives us is a rundown of Deneuve’s movies, as if Anh is struggling with cinematic autism. Although this does add to the power of Anh’s escapism, it doesn’t give us much more. As if we are constantly seeing someone in the throes of addiction, but never seeking help.
Towards the end, we do see Anh show frustration with her inability to live any life outside of Catherine Deneuve’s various screen roles:
“Get out of here!” I say to the cinematographic currents trying to carry me off with it. Leave me alone. I don’t want to be carried off. But it was difficult to maintain a distance from the images. They swept me away with them, wanting to drown me. Why was I, a free human being, not allowed to turn off the images when I wished or a t least correct them? I wished to experience boredom, for this I would at least entail the individual freedom not to take part. If I fell asleep in my seat, the film would have been better for me. I had to remain awake, though, to wait for you.
Anh has the ability to recognize her obsession, but this is towards the end of the novel and the reader gets no hints of her self-awareness before this. Even despite her obsession, she manages to befriend a man, Charles, who introduces her to a Vietnamese emigré, Tuong Linh. Tuong Linh is a surgeon. Anh ends up living with him even though she is in love with Charles. Tuong Linh insists that she go to language school but she avoids his inquiries whenever the topic is mentioned. But in order to do this he decides to marry her so she can get a visa. She obtains a fake passport from one of Tuong Linh’s friends and is arrested. Tuong Linh is well on his way to Thailand, with no idea of Anh’s arrest. When she is released, she ends up at Marie’s apartment and almost doesn’t recognize her because Marie had aged so much in six years. Which brings us to Les voleurs which star Catherine Deneuve as another character named Marie who is now a middle-aged professor having a lesbian affair with one of her students. She stays with Marie, again in poverty, and ends up through circuitous ties, with Jörg. She returns to Bochum and lives with Jörg. But she is back to where she was in the beginning of the novel. The last chapter is entitled, “Dancer in the Dark,” and is a plot synopsis of the movie which leaves the reader wondering too much about what Anh ever really wanted and where if anywhere, she will go to find herself.
One of the things I did find most interesting about Tawada’s novel is the appearance of communism and the sense of government as mother. From the onset, Anh is devoutly Communist. And throughout there are running themes of class division, the cinema being compared to her motherland as protector and a dialogue and metaphors about liberty and freedom. Anh adheres to the concepts of Communism in her beliefs, but becomes totally oblivious to the present day changes that Communism has endured and its weakening grasp on the world.
I wanted very much to love this novel, but ultimately had too many unanswered questions were presented to the reader and like Anh felt like I was watching a narrator act like she was in a book, but never fully present. And one note on the translation—parts of the novel were written in German and parts were written in Japanese and then translated by Tawada into both languages. The extremely capable Susan Bernofsky translated it from the German. When I encountered phrases that seemed out of character for Anh or sudden strong phrases that were an anomaly to her narrative voice, I wasn’t sure whose translation that fell on or if that was an authorial choice. Regardless, it was jarring and it interrupted the generally low key and fluid narrative.
I hope we can read more of Tawada’s work in the future because it is so intriguing—ones without such a narrow conceit. I have watched as many Catherine Deneuve movies as possible and felt that if I hadn’t, I don’t know where I would’ve been as a reader approaching this novel? Too much rests on the magic of Catherine Deneuve and not enough on the author. As the French say, “Quel dommage!”
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