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IN BRIEF

Fiction

September 22, 1996|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

ANNAM by Christophe Bataille translated by Richard Howard (New Directions: $15.95, 87 pp.). This is the strange story of a ship of French monks who sailed for Vietnam in 1788, and were, in the wake of the French Revolution, altogether forgotten by their country. Vietnam grew through them and around them, poking tendrils in their catechism and their faith until it resembled pantheism or Buddhism more than the Catholicism of Louis XVI.

The monks and sisters work alongside the Vietnamese for years, until Brother Dominic, Sister Catherine and Brother Michel undertake the journey to the mountains of Annam. Brother Michel dies en route, and here, when the rains come in Annam, is where you begin to wish that this tiny novel, written by a 21-year-old Frenchman and awarded the Prix du Premier Roman, would go on and on and on.

"The rain spoke to them, as did the moon and the wind. The missionaries offered them a book animated by remote legends; they were diverting. But the gods of earth and sky were incredible and close at hand: they made each leaf tremble. . . . Her faith had slowly disintegrated. . . . Dominic forgot himself in her. Catharine yielded beneath his body which had taken her so far. The ground beneath them had turned to mud. . . . Their thoughts escaped. They had chosen their oblivion and in it found themselves infinitely present."

Sorry. It's a simple, elegantly translated story that asks so little of the reader and gives back so much in the currency of longing.

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