Photographic Advertisement for Emile Gsell, French, 1860s, Courtesy of The Met Open Access. The conquest of Saigon in 1859 by Admiral Rigault de Genouilly and the ensuing spread of French influence through Indochina and Cambodia was the first colonial success of the Second Empire. To commemorate the achievement, the admiral, who had become minister of the Navy, presented Empress Eugénie in 1867 with a luxuriously bound album of photographs entitled Cochinchine et Cambodge, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection. The photographs were made by Gsell, a Frenchman stationed in Saigon, of whom nothing more is yet known except that in June 1866 he accompanied the naval captain Doudart de Lagrée on a scientific mission along the Mekong River.

The Hero as a Drifting Shadow

The latest novel by the mysterious Joseph Andras gathers traces of Ho Chi Minh’s pre-revolutionary youth

Faraway the Southern Sky by Joseph Andras, translated by Simon Leser, Verso (2024)

No one knows who Joseph Andras is. The name is a pseudonym of a French writer who has published eight books and various articles in the francophone left press, and of whom only one photo circulates. It shows a bespectacled guy with his back to the camera; he clasps his hands as he looks aside; there’s murky green water in front of him and, a little farther on, pallets and a utility van. Andras isn’t on Twitter and doesn’t have a website. The author bio from his French publisher states just that he was born in 1984 and lives in Normandy. He doesn’t do public appearances, but sometimes he gives interviews, which yield a little more information: he seems to have traveled widely and, in contrast to the longstanding sociological trend of writers ensconcing themselves in academic institutions, never attended a university. When an interviewer asked him why he resisted publicity, he said that “a baker makes bread, a plumber unblocks pipes, a writer writes: it’s as simple as that. Everything is in the book; I really don’t see what else I would have to add.”1Lionel Decottignies, “Joseph Andras: «Un boulanger fait du pain, un écrivain écrit».” Medi@terranee (25 May 2016), translation mine. The original reads, “Un boulanger fait des baguettes de pain, un plombier débouche des canalisations, un écrivain écrit : c’est aussi simple que ça. Tout est dans le livre, je ne vois pas vraiment ce que j’aurais à ajouter de plus.”

Ho Chi Minh, here named Nguyen Ai Quoc (1890 – 1969), delegate for Indochina to the French Communist Congress in Marseilles, 1921. Wikimedia Commons.

Andras caused a stir in 2016, when his book Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us was awarded the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, a big-name prize given to debut novels. He turned it down and didn’t go to the ceremony; instead, he drew up a statement that thanked the committee for its interest but asserted that “contest, competition, and rivalry are, in my eyes, notions alien to writing and creation.”2Virginie Cresci, “Joseph Andras refuse le prix Goncourt du Premier roman.” Le Nouvel Obs (13 May 2016), translation mine.  The original reads, “La compétition, la concurrence et la rivalité sont à mes yeux des notions étrangères à l’écriture et à la creation.” At one time the refusal of literary prizes was fashionable: Julien Gracq declined a Goncourt in 1951, and Jean-Paul Sartre declined the Nobel he was offered. Considered cynically, what they did could be written off as the kind of ploy you read about in books like James English’s The Economy of Prestige: they unctuously cultivated the approval of literary tastemakers, then made a big show of rebuffing them to flaunt their “integrity.” The convention in those days was for writers to show a modernist aloofness to worldly honors. But now these pretensions to a numinous theory of art – “art for art’s sake” – are mostly dead, and today writers, like everyone else, are doomed to compulsory self-publicity and have to parcel out their lives in standardized units of content across multiple social media platforms. In this personality-driven landscape, the kind of anonymity Andras insists on assumes a radical quality it lacked in Sartre’s day. And his avowals of authorial modesty seem reflected in the standpoint taken up by his writing, which shows a real sensitivity to the range of people and experiences unfairly classified as nonentities and nonevents.  

So far two books of Andras’s have been translated into English, both by Simon Leser. They seem to belie the value Andras puts on impersonality a little because each one’s approach is a kind of life writing: officially novels but built around factual material, the books are biographical chronicles of communist notables. The first, Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us,3Or De nos frères blessés (“Of our wounded brothers”) in the original French. The new title, in translation, comes from a poem that the pied-noir and FLN activist Annie Steiner wrote in her jail cell on the day of Iveton’s execution in 1957. Andras interpolates the complete poem into his novel. While in the context of Steiner’s poem or Andras’s novel the line “Tomorrow they won’t dare to murder us” may be very moving indeed, the editors have a bone to pick with the publisher’s outwardly cynical decision to adapt it for the title of the novel. We suspect that, pursuant to a market analysis of its readers’ habits and inclinations, Verso felt the need to signal unambiguously, on both the cover and the spine, that This Is A Serious Left-Wing Novel. What results is a cloying sales pitch that does little justice to the novel’s artistic integrity and diminishes the line’s poetic effect within the greater text. For more on the uniquely Anglo-philistine habit of US publishers to distort and deform perfectly good book titles in translation, see Max Ornstein & John Michael Colón, “Pulitzer Bait” in Strange Matters Issue Three (Spring 2024). –Eds. is about Fernand Iveton, who was the only pied noir put to death during the Algerian War; he was sentenced because he planted a bomb in a factory storeroom in Algiers, although it was timed to go off when no one would be there and defused before it exploded. But Andras doesn’t puff Iveton up into some outsize heroic militant, nor does he pathologize him as a fanatic or charlatan (like, say, the characters in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent). What makes the book so striking is the way it continually zeroes in on the prosaic aspects of a dramatic historical episode. At times Andras seems to want to show how people carried out their daily routines while aware of the violence they were complicit in. In one scene Iveton is eating with his grandfather and recounts how on the same day in 1945 when Germany surrendered, French settlers massacred thousands of Algerians; then, he compliments his grandfather’s pork roast.

But the commonplace isn’t always sinister in the novel. At one point the narrator, describing Iveton, notes that “happiness for him is tied to the ordinary”; so, too, is Andras’s narrative practice. He seems endlessly interested in everyday life. Sometimes he pulls back from the story to focus in on some quotidian detail: a guy in a raincoat running across a street, or the way Iveton’s wife, Hélène, idly plays with an unlit cigarette while talking to him. These moments don’t so much act as startling juxtapositions as show Andras’s discerning appreciation for routine things that go overlooked. Elsewhere, Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us describes how Iveton enjoyed soccer, came to like cats later in life, was amiable but stiffly formal on dates, didn’t get past the first three chapters of Crime and Punishment, and had a big appetite. Even when Iveton is getting stitched up by the colonial government in its attempt to intimidate the independence movement, his letters from jail to Hélène contain lines like “I did my laundry today.”

A second book by Andras has just been published in English, Faraway the Southern Sky. It’s about Hồ Chí Minh, but characteristically Andras doesn’t focus on his heroic exploits fighting off imperialists throughout the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Instead, Andras is interested in a mysterious stint he spent living in Paris, which lasted from possibly as early as 1917 (no one is sure of the exact date) to 1923; he would have been roughly in his late twenties during this period (there’s no consensus about his date of birth either). He was politically active to some extent at the time: he and other expats formed an anti-colonial group, the Group of Annamite Patriots; he gave a speech at a congress of the French Section of the Workers’ International; he worked on a book about Vietnam that never got published. But his accomplishments on this front were nothing like what was to come, and the life he led in Paris was lonely, marginal, and impoverished.

The very first page of Andras’s novel, which maintains a second-person perspective throughout, offers a stirring explanation for its choice of this smaller scope: 

Hồ Chí Minh the icon, revered Supreme Leader, interests you very little. Portraits printed on bank notes from a Vietnam won over by international trade, even less. You only ever cherished those at the back, the losers, the ignored, the third-rates, the fuck-ups – those there, laid low under shoddy stars, not even worth a penny.

A Viet Minh banknote of twenty (Hai Muoi) Dong issued in 1951 featuring Ho Chi Minh. Courtesy of Museum of General Leclerc de Hauteclocque and the Liberation of Paris, Jean Moulin museum. Public Domain.

Formally, Faraway the Southern Sky turns away from the more novelistic qualities of Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us. Where Tomorrow includes stretches of dialogue and delves into the unexpressed feelings of its characters, Faraway the Southern Sky has a consistent essayistic bent. It’s an account of a day spent meandering around Paris sometime at the end of the last decade, over the course of which the second-person narrator (presumably, Andras) goes to places where Hồ spent time: a shabby bachelors-only rooming house he lived in for a while; the building where the Intercolonial Union, an organization Hồ was involved in that tried to bring workers from the colonies together with ones from the metropole, was founded; the former offices of Le Paria, a magazine Hồ worked on in his waning days in the city.

Almost no traces of him are left in these sites, which are now doctor’s offices, three-star hotels, and supermarkets. But their auratic dearth doesn’t bother Andras, who affectionately records the superficies of everyday life. There are lots of passages like this one (from a visit to 9 Impasse Compoint, where Hồ lived and tried his hand at operating a photo enlargement studio):

A busted clothesline leans on a façade, a woman smokes on a balcony, a man is double-parked in order to buy pastries. Leaves crumple under your heels, and pigeons, with their wings, are practicing various forms of the verb ‘to flap.’ The metro car is packed; a young man launches into a rap song for a few coins.

A bronze plaque mounted at house No. 9, Compoint Lane, District 17, Paris, reading: “Here, from 1921-1923, Nguyen Ai Quoc [Minh’s pseudonym] lived and fought for the right to independence and freedom for the Vietnamese people and other oppressed peoples.” Image courtesy of History Teller (người kể sử).

But these street scenes make up just the surface layer of the novel’s structure. Andras notes at one point that “a walk is work for feet, but even more for digression. Hints of ideas jump out only to end in puddles, sentences escape the hands of streets, words bounce off the cobblestones, memories start up without so much as announcing themselves.” He drifts back and forth from the present to Hồ’s era and into asides on Karl Kautsky and Trotsky’s debates about political violence, the gilets jaunes protests (which were occurring as the book was being written), and continuities between Western empires and the Third Reich, among other topics; the result is a kind of historical palimpsest.4For a related examination of the legacy of the Situationist International in contemporary French literature, see Apoorva Tadepalli, “Dream City” in Strange Matters Issue Two (Spring 2023). –Eds.

Though Faraway the Southern Sky is scrupulously researched, the lack of solid facts about Hồ’s years in Paris gives Hồ a ghostly presence amid so many layerings. In contrast to Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us, which offers a semi-fictional reconstruction of what Iveton thought and said, Faraway the Southern Sky keeps its distance from its central figure. Our only access to him comes directly from Andras’s sources: biographies of Hồ, reminiscences of people who crossed paths with him, and above all a surveillance file on him that began in 1919 and was compiled by the Sûrété Générale (which Leser’s translator’s note likens to the FBI). They contradict each other to the point that Hồ is hard to discern under their conflicting details; the effect is haunting. Andras’s walk up Rue Marcedet, where Hồ once lived, captures these qualities: 

Balsamic vinegar glaze snakes its way down white plates; here, the passerby can acquire “vintage” decorative objects, as well as “artisanal” cheeses and furniture. You make a stop at 129, at which address Alain Geismar, then a militant in the Proletarian Left, paid tribute to Maoist worker Pierre Overney, felled, some three years after the death of Hồ Chí Minh, by a security officer at the Renault company; the murderer would be bumped off five years later by the Armed Nuclei for Popular Autonomy, while the militant eventually returned to a more conventional life. A woman in formless gray is at a standstill, on the phone, while another passes by, wrapped in a scarf the same orange as her shopping cart. A small truck is waiting, engine on in the chilly air, and you think, God knows why, of a description sketched out by one of Hồ Chí Minh’s biographers, and based on a Parisian picture of Nguyên Tât Thanh [an alias Hồ used in Paris] – extremely rare, as you said before: the young man wore a bowler hat and had an expression not unlike that of the Little Tramp in The Immigrant or The Pilgrim. He seemed “lost,” “broken”; he didn’t have the grotesque look of the sentences you underlined in a Party publication, put out by Hanoi Editions: Marx’s heir, a “genius” whose work will establish “Spring eternal.”

Scan of a 1919 French Government file explaining the meaning of Minh’s alias. Wikimedia Commons. “The name “Nguyễn Ái Quốc” was explained in the letter dated July 9, 1919 from the head of the French Indochina correspondence department in Marseille to the director in charge of French Indochina as follows: “Nguyễn Ái Quốc is actually just an alias, with Interpretation NGUYỄN is the most common surname of the Annamites, Ái means Love, and Quốc means Homeland. So, the name could be understood as meaning “Nguyễn loves his homeland / Nguyễn Patriot(ic)” (Nguyễn yêu nước).”

Like the rest of the book, this part moves forward via divagation. The accretions of history that Andras uncovers in the surfaces of the city (in this case, the story of an organizer shot dead by a security guard in a car factory) give way to mundane impressions of trucks and people on their phones. And looming over it all is Hồ, who’s suspended uneasily between the Communist Party of Vietnam’s hagiography and the forlorn, incongruously dressed guy from the book Andras remembers. Glimpsed only through the medium of other people’s words, he seems to recede from Andras’s grasp.

What emerges from this strange, associative history is a picture of a solitary and still unformed person leading a discontinuous life. When Hồ leaves what was then Indochina, he does it “without breathing a word of it to his family”; his departure from Paris years later is just as mysterious and abrupt. The name used to refer to Hồ shifts as he changes aliases throughout his time in France: Nguyên Tât Thanh, Nguyên Ai Quôc,5This name means something like “Nguyên the patriot.” Nguyèn-ai-Quâc; at one point Andras mentions that some Vietnamese historians claim Hồ used as many as 175 names in his lifetime. The people who knew him remember someone reedy, awkward, and diffident. Andras glosses the condescending account of French anti-Stalinist Boris Souvarine, who recalled “a shy boy, gentle, unassuming, silent and fascinated by orators: ‘insignificant,’ in short (a nondescript man, without a past, whose conversation was ‘not in the least interesting,’ he added with contemptuous insistence).” But as shy as he was he had no trouble giving speeches and made some well-received ones while in France. His life is uneventful enough that the file on him lists off bus rides, trips to the grocery store, meals (he lived on “bread, milk, the occasional sausage”), and drycleaning (in Paris he wore a suit and tie rather than the tunic and sandals he would later be photographed in many times over). Most days he spent reading in libraries, although sometimes he went to the movies too.

It’s hard to square these details with Hồ’s later life and the image of him that has subsequently obtained, and Andras doesn’t try to. All he professes to do is “assume the tension without seeking synthesis.” As a result, in Faraway the Southern Sky Hồ is at once ordinary and utterly unfathomable, like a stranger passing you in the street. In this he resembles Andras himself. Rather than become of those authors droning on in lame self-mythologizing interviews, he has chosen to be nobody and align himself with the world’s “third-rates” and “fuck-ups” – and who wouldn’t, now that the scales have fallen from everyone’s eyes and we all know that “success” (and success in the literary world in particular) is just an epiphenomenon of family money?

This commitment to the anonymous and apparently unremarkable is what makes Andras’s books so fascinating, all the more so because of the reorientation of socialist history it suggests. He makes no claims that his digressions on digressions constitute a system, but they point to a revaluation of ignored or outwardly boring things that puts them above the grandly heroic. Halfway through Faraway the Southern Sky, Andras describes a visit he made to Lenin’s mausoleum, which reminds him of a passage in Trotsky’s My Life saying that the Politburo’s decision to embalm Lenin and lay him under glass “made it possible to betray Lenin’s ideas in order to honor his memory.” Hồ has an enormous mausoleum, too, but what seems to be at stake in these books is the rejection of this kind of hagiography and the individualistic conception of history it entails. (Andras thinks Hồ’s ashes “should’ve been scattered, with no ruinous funeral, on a pretty hill.”)

To this white elephant historiography Andras counterposes accounts of quotidian stuff. Instead of grandiose historical ruptures, he homes in on everyday events, and instead of overinflated revolutionary heroes, he exalts so-called losers. From this perspective neither supreme leaders nor celebrity writers plot the course of history. Andras brushes away the residuum in our heads of this simplified outlook to reveal the real nerve center of the world: the slow buildup of mundane occurrences common to everyone. ~


  • Jim Henderson

    Jim Henderson's writing has appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Review 31, and Minor Literature[s]. His website can be found at

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Strange Matters is a cooperative magazine of new and unconventional thinking in economics, politics, and culture.