Polymath George Groslier’s Mekong River travelogue was a best seller in France in 1931. Eighty-five years later, the work described as ‘stirring poems . . . making us feel all the beauty of a little-known land’ has finally been published in English.
When French novelist, archaeologist, painter, photographer and architect George Groslier boarded a boat in 1929 to document pagodas along 2,000 kilometres of the Mekong River, the travelling polymath did so with an infallible and often self-deprecating sense of humour.
“Me, I am an inexperienced oaf, 70 kilos of flaccid flesh. Every time I have boarded a pirogue [long canoe] . . . I have all but flipped the thing,” wrote a 42-year-old Groslier in the first week of his two-part, months-long, sometimes gruelling mission.
Though Groslier’s 600-page diary would find commercial success in France after its distillation into a travel book in 1931, its English translation, Water and Light: A Travel Journal of the Cambodian Mekong, was only released this February.
The travelogue, published by DatAsia Press, a specialty publisher based in Florida, tells of muddy river banks, jolly monks in dazzling pagodas, dangerous rapids, festive boat races and nighttime bonfires by the Mekong, with exceptional literary weight.
The book, which also contains newly colourised vintage photographs of the author and the places he visited, sheds light on the brilliant mind of a man whose contributions to Cambodian cultural heritage remain unparalleled among foreigners.
“He put his hands everywhere in Cambodia,” Jean-Michel Filippi, a Corsican linguist and historian with an expansive knowledge of modern Cambodian history, said this week. “He did not neglect anything.”
In an era of colonialism, of la mission civilisatrice, Groslier was a champion of Khmer cultural preservation and revivalism. Two of Cambodia’s leading cultural institutions – the National Museum and the Royal University of Fine Arts – claim the mustached Frenchman as their founder and architect.
His book on traditional Khmer dancing, Cambodian Dancers: Ancient and Modern (1912), remains authoritative (as do his photographs of the dancers) and until only recently, his literary account of a jungle surveying mission in 1913, In the Shadow of Angkor (1916), was the sole scholarly work on a number of remote Angkorian temples.
Groslier also published several novels, many concerned with the clash of “oriental” and “occidental” values. One of them, Return to Clay (1928), earned him a national literary prize in France.
“Discover, explore, meditate, dig deeper, write: this was Groslier’s way,” wrote French colonial literature expert Henri Copin in the foreword to Water and Light.
Groslier left his mark in other ways too. It was he who oversaw the infamous arrest of Angkorian antiquities looter Andre Malraux, a man of eclectic pursuits who would later become a celebrated writer and minister of culture under de Gaulle. Nearly everywhere you look in colonial Cambodia, you find Groslier’s fingerprint.
“Groslier was not a specialist of a given field. Groslier was Groslier,” waxed Filippi. “He used all available methods to reach a deeper understanding of Cambodia.”
Groslier’s inspection of Cambodia was also a study of his own beginnings. He was born in 1887 in the Kingdom to French civil servants who returned to France when he was 2 years old. He was “a Cambodian born to a French family”, quipped Filippi.
As a young man, he attended art school in Paris with dreams of becoming a painter. It was through happenstance, in 1910, that he went east, sent to Cambodia on a cultural mission for France’s then-minister of education Albert Sarraut.
On that trip, a visit to Angkor Wat proved formative for the 23-year-old Groslier, generating visions of that “grand Angkorian past”, wrote Copin, an encounter which became “the wellspring of his love for Cambodia”.
Two decades later, Groslier’s wellspring was still gushing. Again called upon by French officialdom, this time to survey and document pagodas, Groslier figured that the best way to find them would be to follow Cambodia’s great lifeline, the Mekong River, or what he called “the Father of Waters”.
But it would be no pleasure cruise. On two separate journeys, from Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham to Kratie and elsewhere in a small motorised vessel, Groslier suffered the expected discomforts: dense heat, unforgiving sunburn, cramped expeditionary canoes, filthiness and fatigue. Yet none of it harmed his writing.
In Water and Light, Groslier was able to do what he does best: to illustrate landscapes. He was an expert in the tricky art of scene setting.
“Groslier is absolutely fascinated by the Cambodian landscape,” said Filippi. “Landscape is precisely where you start with Groslier.”
It was an obsession that dominated his novels, too, with some descriptions of single landscapes extending for several pages.
French novelist and literary critic Edmond Jaloux once described Groslier’s wordy renderings of Cambodia as “a series of living, stirring poems . . . making us feel all the beauty of a little-known land”.
For biographer and Water and Light publisher Kent Davis, Groslier was “a keen observer with a sense of humor. You couldn’t find a more pleasant guide to take you on a river voyage on the Cambodian Mekong.”
Curiously, the Cambodian-born Frenchman’s predilection for landscapes was shared by his Cambodian literary contemporaries, said Filippi.
“Groslier’s way of writing is typically Cambodian,” Filippi said of his scenery fetish. “Groslier writes like a Cambodian writer but in French.”
Indeed, if his prose does anything, it puts you right in a place, which in this book, is likely at water-level. In Water and Light, he describes a riverine settlement in Kratie with bathers enjoying “a lukewarm bath in plasma and rot. Emerging from the water: men of fine physique, bound-up old women who spend their lives here, children by the swarm, live-eyed little acrobats, born of the women’s dependable fertility.
“Consider the solitary, deserted little house floating opposite the village on bamboo pontoons . . . It floats like a bouquet in front of the vile, noxious village – and its gods take nourishment from the same water.”
The book is filled with such writings, warts and all, timeless Cambodian scenes that are familiar to the country still.
For readers who know Cambodia, Groslier’s writing is a pleasure. But for those unfamiliar with this part of the world, the book may not hold attentions.
That may be one reason why it took so long for an English translation to materialise.
“Indochina in the colonial sense just doesn’t seem to be on people’s minds in the West,” said Pedro Rodriguez, who translated the book for DatAsia Press, along with three other Groslier works. “The Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge seem to have monopolised the conversation.”
Davis, who has worked on four other Groslier republishing projects, describes the book’s road to fruition as a “long process”, with a translation period that lasted from 2010 to 2014. During that period, Davis met Nicole Groslier Rea, Groslier’s daughter.
Nicole, who was born in Phnom Penh but, serendipitously, ended up living a mere 25 kilometres from Davis’s family home in Florida, convinced the publisher to restore and hand-tint the archival photographs, which took another year.
Before she died in early 2015, Davis met with her frequently over a period of two years in her Sarasota Bay home to speak about her father.
For Davis, his involvement with Groslier has been about correcting an historical “oversight”.
“Despite the magnitude of his devotion and accomplishments, few people today appreciate his contributions to Cambodia,” wrote Davis in his brief biography of Groslier, Le Khmérophile: The Art and Life of George Groslier.
But it has also been a labour of love for the Floridian publisher.
“I publish out of my love and respect for these early writers,” he said. “So [I have] no ‘target market’ in mind.”
But for Filippi, Groslier’s “talent is too linked to the Cambodian context” to find attraction within a mass market. “It’s difficult to appreciate Groslier without knowing Cambodia,” he said.
In 1928, Paul Boudet, then director of the Libraries of Indochina, described Groslier as “a smiling, hospitable man who welcomes you with the sort of joyous voice one does not employ on the importunate”. Boudet went on to describe Groslier’s Phnom Penh home as “very un-colonial, more like a Pompeian villa . . . [with] books all along the walls”.
Groslier’s red-walled abode, nestled in a corner on the campus of the Royal University of Fine Arts, is still there. Today, its exterior is mouldy, with insides that have been converted into drab faculty offices. The books are gone and any air of worldly refinement is overpowered by the fumes from a nearby garbage pile.
But up the road a ways, past the National Museum and Street 13, which in the dusk of colonialism honoured Groslier with his name, the river looks much the same as it did 87 years ago, a glassy, tranquil highway which “flows on into the sky and is filled with it”.
Water and Light: A Travel Journal of the Cambodian Mekong is available from Amazon.com for $34.95, plus shipping. Monument Books is able to order the book on request for $49.50.