Book Review: “Faraway the Southern Sky” — Portrait of a Young Revolutionary

By Bill Littlefield

“Faraway the Southern Sky” is an extraordinary literary achievement because it makes real and present the scuffling life and education of the very young man who grew up to become Ho Chi Minh.

Faraway the Southern Sky: A Novel by Joseph Andras. Translated by Simon Leser. Verso, 82 pages.

Verso’s promotional material for Faraway the Southern Sky describes the novel as “genre-bending.” It’s no exaggeration.

Joseph Andras, both author and narrator, explores the streets of contemporary Paris, seeking traces of Nguyen Tat Thanh, who more than a century earlier had wandered through the same neighborhoods. At the beginning of this slim book there’s a crude, hand-drawn map of the arrondissements to help the reader follow the path Andras took.

The reader can be forgiven if the name Nguyen Tat Thanh isn’t familiar. Andras writes at one point that the man whose past he was tracking used more aliases than he could count. Eventually, Nguyen Tat Thanh became known to the world as Ho Chi Minh.

In the chaotic days after the First World War, fleeing persecution in Indochina, Nguyen found his way to France via London. He supported himself with various menial jobs and sought out meetings of more or less radical groups, where, mostly, he listened. He began writing articles for political newspapers. His attempts to convince members of the leftist intelligentsia to concern themselves with the dreary and dangerous circumstances of people like himself in the French colonies in Indochina were largely unsuccessful. But over the years he developed from a shy, introverted adolescent into a man who would eventually become forceful enough to help inspire the Vietnamese independence movement.

During the period when he was initially cobbling together a political philosophy in Paris, Nguyen based his case on what Andras refers to as “the Noble French People and their sublime ideal of universal fraternity.” He was no firebrand. His tone was “restrained.”

“Barely a tickle, soft nothings. No onset of secession, no foretaste of revolution, no hint of rifles cracking beneath the moon — not even a peashooter. The first liberal in sight would have gladly co-signed it. “

Unfortunately, for Nguyen and his comrades, the “liberals” and others who were making the decisions about what the world would look like following WWI were deaf to such idealism — at least as Nguyen expressed it. In that remade world dictated by the rich and powerful, “the underclass and the ill-to-do were still bludgeoned, troops or law enforcement still sent to put a few down every once in a while.”

Nguyen Ai Quoc (the later Ho Chi Minh) speaking at the foundational congress of the French Communist Party, Tours, December 1920. Photo: Imperial and Global Forum

At one point, late in Faraway the Southern Sky, Andras stumbles on a plaque outside an apartment building commemorating the fact that, from 1921 until 1923, Nguyen Ai Quoc (another of the aliases) “lived and campaigned (here) for the independence and freedom of the Vietnamese people and other oppressed peoples.” Otherwise, though the same poverty is evident in the neighborhoods, Andras wanders around newly minted buildings that are standing where Nguyen once lived or worked. But the author’s historical imagination never lets him down. Neither does the poetry of his language — or the language his translator finds — as Andras reports that “under a sky so white it doesn’t deserve the name,” Nguyen “rubbed shoulders with … the anarchos, Marxist gatekeepers, and clean-nailed social democrats … hopping from the doctrinal points of some to others’ blasphemies, zigzagging between the tracks, neglecting totems and guardrails. Bastard in his amateurism, hybrid by temperament, mixed-blood for lack of time: Nguyen knocked about between cats and dogs.”

Faraway the Southern Sky, the title of which is derived from a poem Ho Chi Minh wrote in the ’40s, is an extraordinary literary achievement because it makes real and present the scuffling life and education of the very young man who grew up to be the old sage who inspired the chants of “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, NLF Is Gonna Win” 50 years after those days in Paris.

Upon the Range of the West Wind,

Alone I walk, my heart moved.

Scanning after the Southern sky,

I think of my friends.

Bill Littlefield’s most recent book is Mercy, published by Black Rose Writing.


  1. Steve F on May 25, 2024 at 1:56 pm

    I’d like to know a little more about why this is a novella.

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