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The brush was a hickory twig, its end hammered into a soft, pointed fringe. The painter drew it across the canvas, tracing a long stroke of cobalt blue-the light of predawn. Another dash, a smear, a twist of the bristles, and a cluster of areca palms silhouetted the horizon. The only movement was a blur of wind across a colony of stars.
It was the first day of winter. The inside of the church was so cold that he could see his breath in the candlelight. The painting was a rectangle of oils on sheepskin, stretched on a wooden frame. Its image resembled nothing of the splendor and immensity of the surrounding medieval architecture but was cast in the bold colors of his imagination. Hanging by cords over his wool coat was a collection of curios-fragments of broken clay pots, pinecones, a metal goblet, clumps of feathers, a bird's wing. The rest of his belongings were leaning against the wall-five rolls of unfinished paintings, sketches, and a bundle of soiled clothes.
A deep voice echoed outside the realm of his concentration. Across the room, a priest was reading from his notes to an assemblage of novices.
These tall palms, with trunks as straight and smooth as masts on a ship, have simple crowns of large fan-shaped leaves. They grow in the deep shadows of the ancient forest, surrounding picturesque rivers, mountains, and villages. I have traveled through the mysterious lands of ancient Tsiampa, visited the ruins of Angkor in Cambodia, and witnessed the vast grace and wealth of the coastal cities of Cochin China ...
The artist stepped back and examined his work. Its balance pleased him, but it needed detail. He cleaned his brushes, fumbling through his pockets for another color, a light green with a touch of blue. He imagined a bed of vegetation carpeting the forest floor, as if anticipating the sun in the lush landscape.
Around him in the cathedral, sumptuous paintings, tapestries, and fresco murals depicted the lives of saints and angels, their faces serene under golden halos. Although it was his first time in Avignon, he knew its history. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, the Palace of the Popes had been erected as the new home for Pope Clement V after the authority of the Holy See was shifted from Rome to Avignon. Now more than four hundred and fifty years later, the palace complex was still one of the most impressive Gothic castles in Europe, an imposing fortress made up of towers linked by stone galleries. But to him, the wealth and the beauty lay in the artwork.
There in the exotic lands of Asia, the voice was reading, I beheld the wide variety of human types, communities, and political regimes, which are unknown to the Western world ...
The cathedral he had chosen to work in was housed in the Tower of Saint John-the quarter that was reserved for the resident scholars. As the first pale gleam of sunlight glanced over a row of gray stone corridors, the young man shivered. His eyes were burning, his stomach grumbling, his body aching. It had been days since he had eaten a good meal or enjoyed a restful sleep. The bustling city of Avignon had little hospitality for drifters, vagabonds, and artists.
Ahead of him, a long narrow passage led to the nave. Beneath a series of tapestries depicting the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, seminarians from many orders huddled on pews facing a black-robed priest. It was his voice the painter was listening to. Above the altar, Christ hung on a cross, carved from wood-his head bowed, his face hidden beneath a tangle of hair. It was an image that the artist had copied over and over, trying to invoke Jesus' essence.
The priest put down his notes and leaned forward, addressing his audience more personally. "You are all preparing to be ordained." His voice struck a low pitch, and its vibration rumbled in the cavernous hall. "With the conquest of heathen lands all over the world comes an opportunity for the expansion of Christianity. To novices of any order who have strong faith, I offer a chance to serve in a foreign place, along with the guaranteed reward of immortality in heaven. There will be a series of planned voyages and explorations of South-east Asia, a pagan civilization open to conversion to the true faith. We need physicians, scientists, botanists, engineers, and artists to effect and record the dawn of the Christian era ..."
The artist paused in the midst of his brushstroke. Those last words seemed to speak directly to him, and he saw that his intuition had served him well when he had decided to come to this place.
The ghostly dawn poured in through rows of stained-glass windows and bathed the statues. Along the walls, the fresco murals absorbed the light, and the figures within their panels seemed to breathe. The artist coughed. The seminarians turned their heads and whispered in one another's ears. A round-faced youth wearing the brown robe of the Benedictine order looked him up and down. The lecturer rapped his knuckles on the dais to regain their attention.
In contrast to his impressive voice, the priest's body was slight. His thin dark hair, combed back from a high forehead, failed to cover his balding crown. From within two gaunt sockets, his eyes captured the sunlight's golden hue yet reflected none of its warmth.
As he spoke, his lower jaw revealed a row of uneven, yellow teeth. Everything about him, from his features to the simplicity of his cassock, reminded the artist of portraits of suffering saints from a bygone era.
A hand from the audience rose. The priest acknowledged a young man in the second pew.
"I pray of you, Monsignor de Béhaine," said the novice. Most of his face was hidden under the hood of his robe. His clear voice suggested that he was in his early twenties, slightly older than the artist. "Please tell us more about the geography of these places that you are talking about. I've never heard of them."
The priest tilted his chin forward and addressed the student. "Very well. Brother João, have you heard of China?" he asked. "Yes, sir. It is a country east of India."
"Excellent. Now, imagine, just below China, along the edge of the South China Sea, which is part of the Pacific Ocean, a land three thousand kilometers in length. We call this land Annam, and the people who live there are the Annamites or Annamese. Theirs is a primitive but ancient society. For the last few hundred years, a civil war has divided this country into two separate kingdoms. The North is called Tonkin, while the South is Cochin China. Both of the kings were anointed when they were mere children, and so the two countries are ruled by high-ranking nobles, who are known as vice-kings."
He paused, allowing the seminarians to digest the information. "It took me some time to understand the many ways in which their culture differs from ours. If you decide to accompany me on my next voyage, I promise that you will gain more knowledge about the world than you could ever read in a book-that is, if you could ever find one that is written about these undiscovered lands. Who among you has the hunger for adventure and the dedication to faith required of a missionary?"
The room fell silent. Even the saints on the walls seemed to avert their eyes.
The monsignor chuckled. "Here in Europe we have been blessed with true religion. A priest must be above reproach because he represents God, and also because others on Earth are so lost in their paths that they need guidance. It is now our obligation to rescue the savages. Nothing must be allowed to stop us from carrying out our mission."
Another silence followed his remarks. The same novice stood, pulling back his hood. He was a handsome man with dark features. "What dangers should we expect to face if we join you in your mission of glory?"
De Béhaine squared his shoulders. "The East is a strange and mysterious place," he said. "Starvation is prevalent. Natural disasters are frequent. And death is commonplace. The natives do not believe in our God. Doubtless, you will be embarking on a very dangerous assignment."
Brother João mused, "Then, dear sir, should we risk our lives?" "You should, and you must," the priest replied. "Because it is your duty as a priest to serve God's kingdom and the Mother Church. Your life is not yours to keep. It belongs to our Heavenly Father."
He adjusted the pin on his right shoulder, which held his ankle-length silk cassock together. A large crucifix was suspended by a thong from his neck and tucked into the folds of his sash. He looked out again at the audience and saw that the painter had disappeared down one of the many corridors. All that was left where he had stood was the canvas he had been working on, placed on a bench next to a flickering candle.
The assembled crowd followed the monsignor's look. Decorum forgotten, the novices murmured at the image before them. The monsignor rapped his knuckles on the dais again, but the sound was lost.
De Béhaine stepped down from the altar and marched toward the painting. He forgot about his sermon as he lifted the sheepskin by its frame. The paint was still wet.
The monsignor took in the scene of mountains and palm jungles. The strength of the young man's brush had turned the silent landscape into successions of broken curves and angular turns. The river's pale blue water foamed where it passed through cliffs and emptied into a grassy ravine.
The monsignor laughed out loud in satisfaction. The artist, with his perceptive skills, had created a distant world with amazing accuracy. "Silence!" he commanded. "Does anyone know the painter who left behind this canvas?" He held the picture above his head so everyone could see.
"The Church allows strangers to come and go as they wish," answered Brother João. "We do not know who that was. He could have been a vagrant, coming here to seek alms and refuge in the church's sanctuary."
"No, the technique is much too sophisticated for a vagabond," replied de Béhaine. He lowered his voice. "Whoever he might be, he is certainly an educated man. This painting is not a gift. I have no doubt that I will meet that painter again."
Excerpted from Le Colonial by Kien Nguyen Copyright © 2004 by Nguyen-Andrews, LLC. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted July 6, 2013
Posted July 6, 2013
Posted September 8, 2004
The author's delicate use of language is very effective in building mood and paintings pictures in the reader's head. The actual oddysey takes us through landscapes and peoples that most readers have never thought about or imagined. LE COLONIAL is a classy book. For another strange and beautifully written oddysey, one that travels through a haunted mind, is IN THE GHOST COUNTRY, an absolute surprise.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 8, 2011
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