It might have been, but what about the children with all this voluntary abnegation, practised almost as soon as they were out of the cradle? The answer was given by a Cao-Daist doctor of the ninth grade and a member of the Charity Corps, in which he had reached the rather low rank of fiddle-ardent.
‘We suffer from malnutrition in all its forms,’ he said. ‘Just look at the children, look at the condition of their skins. Covered from head to foot with sores, most of them.’
I told him that those I saw looked the picture of health.
‘Well, naturally,’ the doctor said. ‘You don’t expect them to put the pellagra cases in the front line, do you?’
Beauvais was embarrassed once more, before we left. There was a burst of heavy mortar-fire. Beauvais thought it was miles away and that the wind was carrying the sound in our direction. But there was no wind in Cochin-China – at least while I was there.
At Tay-Ninh we were first received by the administrator, dressed in a gorgeous old mandarin’s coat of dull blue silk, on which the yellow flowers and medallions were seen rather faintly, like the watermarks on superior stationery. The administrator had a small, aged face which, in the local manner, he kept under conspicuous control. Whenever he smiled, which in the course of his duties he did frequently, he laid bare a row of ivory hearts in the background of his gold-framed teeth. Having welcomed, with unquenchable vitality, each member of the visiting party – a task occupying at least half an hour – he darted away, and reappeared with an amateur cine-camera with which he exposed a few feet of film on each of the principal French dignitaries. Champagne and biscuits were now served, and as polite interest in one’s surroundings seemed to be encouraged, I wandered through the ground-floor rooms of the administrator’s typically European villa.
The administrator had thought fit to advertise the modernity of his outlook by furnishing his house in Western style. The tables, with their Liberty runners, the chairs, the Indian rugs, the thick, greasy glaze of the pottery, recalled a Tottenham Court Road showroom. But progressive Easterners of this type find it almost impossible to prevent a dash of the local flavour intruding itself into the flat and tasteless ‘good taste’ of their European decor. Even when the interloper is without other merit, I find it at least piquant. In this case the administrator had decorated one of his otherwise impeccable Heal walls with the pictures of the four vices. Here, where the reproduction Van Gogh sunflower should have been, were the stern warnings, to be seen on sale in all Saigon art shops, to the gambler, the drunkard, the opium smoker and the voluptuary. The administrator had probably been taken in because the technical production of these masterpieces was typically Western and curiously photographic in its flat, bluish monochrome. But the subjects themselves, gentle, contem¬plative almost, and not in the least horrific, were as Vietnamese as pictures of Highland cattle are English. The only detail I can remember of these somnolent transgressions was the fine mosquito-net with which the bed in the last scene was equipped. Vietnam needs a Rowlandson or a Hogarth to deter its sinners. Gin Lane in oriental guise would sell a million copies.
The next item on the programme was a visit to the cathedral, where, according to the description of the ceremonies I read in next day’s paper, His Holiness, Pope Pham-Cong-Tac, whose name means ‘the Sun shining from the South’, awaited us, beneath the golden parasol, attired in his uniform of Grand-Marshal of the Celestial Empire. He was carrying his Marshal’s baton, at the sight of which, according to Cao- Daist literature, all evil spirits flee in terror.
Physically, the Pope looked hardly able to support the weight of his dignity. He was a tiny, insignificant figure of a man, with an air of irremediable melancholy. His presence was, in any case, overshadowed by the startling architectural details of the cathedral, for the design of which he himself had been responsible.
From a distance this structure could have been dismissed as the monstrous result of a marriage between a pagoda and a Southern baroque church, but at close range the vulgarity of the building was so impressive that mild antipathy gave way to fascinated horror. This cathedral must be the most outrageously vulgar building ever to have been erected with serious intent. It was a palace in candy from a coloured fantasy by Disney; an example of funfair architecture in extreme form. Over the doorway was a grotesquely undignified piece of statuary showing Jesus Christ borne upon the shoulders of Lao Tse and in his turn carrying Confucius and Buddha. They were made to look like Japanese acrobats about to begin their act. Once inside, one expected continually to hear bellowing laughter relayed from some nearby Tunnel of Love. But the question was, what had been Pham-Cong-Tac’s intention in producing a house for this petrified forest of pink dragons, this huggermugger of symbolism, this pawnbroker’s collection of cult objects? Was he consciously catering to the debased and credulous tastes of his flock? Or could it be that visible manifestations of religious energy on the part of men who have lived lives entirely divorced from art must always assume these grotesque forms?