Kien Nguyen has chosen a fascinating era of the history of Cochin China and its development for his novel that follows the fates of three Frenchmen from 1773-1785. Most notable is Monsignor Pierre de Behaine, a Catholic priest who secretly nurtures visions of a strong Christian presence among the heathens, converting them to the True Faith. The future glory of the Catholic Church and his native France is the Monsignor's primary motivation.
As the novel begins, de Behaine selects two Frenchmen, whose lives will be intimately entwined with his in the coming years: François Gervaise, a talented artist and the youthful Henri Jacques Monange, who is only fourteen when his adventure begins, already one step ahead of the law in France.
Expectations aside, after more than eight months at sea those who have come in service of Monsignor de Behaine, including Henri and Francois, are unprepared for the brutality that awaits them. When civil war breaks out, all are caught up in a tidal wave of violence; warlords, kings, mandarins, peasants and natural disasters are all part of the strange world they have come to change. In reality, all three live in imminent danger of death or imprisonment, subjected to great spiritual and physical trials over the years.
Pierre de Behaine is the figurehead, the spiritual guide, privy to the whispered instructions of God, constantly in pursuit of his own vision. But Francois Gervaise and Henri Monange are more complicated and well-defined characters, and far more likeable. Francois follows an inner voice, beset by personal doubts; his choices affect his survival, and more importantly, his spiritual condition. A gifted artist, Francois displays the spirit of true religious fervor forged by experience.
Henri is only sixteen when their real trials begin. With an innate sense of right and wrong, Henri is the most accessible and least ascetic of the three men. The youthful Henri is often impetuous, undisciplined and given to anger - but he is honorable, which inspires the trust of others. Each man reacts differently to this constantly changing environment, where fate is altered instantaneously by feast, famine or the whims of a warlord.
Their adventures are extraordinary and exotic, far removed from the structured European values of their native France as Christianity batters at the doors of the Far East, determined to infiltrate this land and claim souls. In the late 1770s, change is wrought by such men who cross cultural boundaries, their pale faces blooming among the crowds like strange flowers in a sea of others. Clearly, the political treachery de Behaine employs is necessary to accomplish his long range goals; carefully tended, the seed of Catholicism continues to grow.
In Nguyen's beautifully detailed and fascinating pre-history of Cochin China, the arrival of the French begins an era of political development in a country torn by dominance of one faction over another, an unending chess game. Le Colonial is a portrait of a continent in search of peace and beset by exploitation.