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With cat's eyes and pen at the ready

Updated: 2013-01-25 12:01
By Mei Jia ( China Daily)

 With cat's eyes and pen at the ready

Above: Philippe Le Gall gives a speech in Beijing.

Left: A color plate from his novel The Path to Venice: The Journey of Young Prince Houpili to the West. Photos Provided to China Daily

With cat's eyes and pen at the ready

Seychelles ambassador is a keen writer, observer

When he was a young man, he was influenced by Jerome K. Jerome's literary sense of humor and by Cervantes' persistence in producing the epic Don Quixote at the age of 58. He also appreciated the works of Pearl S. Buck and Lao She. But Philippe Le Gall became a career diplomat.

The first resident ambassador of Seychelles in China finds writing sets him apart from the other diplomats, who are more reticent about expressing themselves in the printed word. Le Gall believes his writing stimulates cultural exchanges that open doors and build bridges.

His latest novel, published in September, is a tale of a young Chinese aristocrat. The Path to Venice: The Journey of Young Prince Houpili to the West was originally written in French and then translated into Chinese.

"We say if you come to China for one week, you feel you can write a book; for one month, an article; but for more than six months, you can pen nothing," Le Gall says. "I'd like to prove that I still can, after being ambassador here for five years, even with the full understanding of the complexity and richness of Chinese culture."

Le Gall's latest novel is a well-crafted story of a romance between a Chinese prince and a Venetian baroness that ends without even beginning.

In contrast to Marco Polo's journey, Houpili, the descendant of the Ming royal family, starts a sojourn in the 1910s to Venice, where he fails to meet the rebellious Baroness Paola Pia, the woman with whom he has been exchanging letters and love, and has been longing to know.

"It's like East and West dialogue in a special situation," Le Gall says.

Paola Pia is a frivolous woman who seeks sensual pleasure. But deep down she craves the true meaning of love and life, although she is suspicious of religion and truth. She is caught up in her decadent pursuits until the day she hears that her mansion is to be reclaimed by the descendent of its builder, a Chinese prince.

On the other side of the world, Houpili leaves China with resolution and disappointed about the state his country is in. On his voyage he starts writing to the baroness, and a desire grows in him to meet her.

But when he finally arrives, he finds that she has died, leaving him to imagine about their brief connection 60 years later in the mansion.

"The novel is written in typical classical style, and the description and depiction of Chinese people and things are genuine and touching," says Liu Jipeng, director of international media center with Yingping TV Technology, a company under China Central Television.

Le Gall structures the story mainly on two interactive parallel lines: the baroness' conversations with her priest, and Houpili's monologue. The background is peppered with the historical events of the 1910s.

"Both Venice and China were awaiting huge changes. I'd praise the writer for giving history a true and objective touch that represents China accurately," says the scholar Ye Xingsheng.

Le Gall says he was inspired by his personal connection with descendents of two prestigious Chinese families overseas and the stories of the navigator Zheng He in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

"I am more interested in a romance, and to a certain extent in a tragic romance, than in a love story with happy ending.

"I want to invite the readers to board Houpili's junk and accompany him through his journey and get acquainted with his proud and fiercely independent personality and the amusing and, maybe for some people, shocking temper of the baroness."

Le Gall believes that Houpili's journey, the fact that the heir of a Chinese dynasty moves to Venice, is itself a compliment and perhaps even an act of forgiveness toward Old Europe, especially after what it had done to China from the 1840s.

"I also think that if 500 years ago, in return for the hospitality extended to Marco Polo and among others, the West had warmly invited and welcomed distinguished Chinese visitors and missions, it could have accelerated the awakening of some European nations in particular to build a win-win dialogue between the two sides."

Le Gall was involved in establishing the first Seychelles embassy in China in 2007 and has witnessed his country's growth as a holiday destination for Chinese tourists. The Mao-suited diplomat calls it the "Seychelles wave".

Last year 5,000 Chinese visited Seychelles, compared with 2,000 in 2011.

The ambassador uses cultural exchange to raise the visibility of his nation, "probably the nearest African country to China", and only four time zones away.

He has introduced honeymoon tours for young Chinese couples, held Sino-Seychelles culture weeks and published a collection of essays and short stories on comparative studies of the two countries' cultures.

Le Gall paints a picture of an idyllic archipelago whose residents share the Chinese ideals of harmony between man and nature, and respect for ancestral values.

"Seychelles and China share 36 years of exceptional friendship and cooperation. The first Chinese to settle in Seychelles reached our shores 150 years ago," he says. "And the reasons why the first Chinese who landed in the 1860s decided to stay and be happy there are still valid today."

Le Gall says writing increases his understanding of China and promotes his country to the world. "China has been a global focus. Through promoting Seychelles in China and via China, we're making our country go global, too."

Writing is also a way to break down barriers, he says. "I take it as a blessing as I have a duty of discretion as a diplomat. But as a fiction writer I enjoy total freedom and independence to express my thoughts."

The scholar and French-language translator Fan Haoyi says: "The ambassador is a mature writer. His book of essays on the two countries' cultures has wide influence. And his novel shows strong literary influence from European classics and allows readers space for imagination."

Le Gall was born in France in 1954. Since childhood, China has fascinated him with its antiques and literature. "Unlike now, when China is a key player in international affairs and China stories appear more frequently in the news, I had limited access as a young and eager reader."

By the time he was 12 he knew he would write books one day, he says.

He first tested his literary skills 10 years ago in a competition organized for countries in the southwest of the Indian Ocean. His work The King's Garden was named best short story and won the overall Indian Ocean Award for the best entry in a competition, which covered novels, short stories, poetry and theater.

He has been in China several times since the late 1990s, and his fascination has only increased in tandem with his accumulated knowledge.

"It is not a dead or dying civilization but the only 5,000-year-old civilization still standing on its feet and getting more and more creative."

He has many hobbies, all forged in China. He collects Chinese paintings of cats exclusively - felines staring at birds, butterflies, crickets, mice or bees.

"Cats are observers. Like them, I pay particular attention to the way China develops and faces the numerous challenges related to development at such an unprecedented and incredibly large scale.

"There is such a sense of innovation nowadays in China that I feel privileged to be an observer, knowing that China has gone global in such a way and to such an extent that whatever happens here automatically has an impact elsewhere."

Le Gall says Beijing is one of the safest capitals and has a remarkable cultural heritage and a vivid artistic life.

"And this is quite appreciated by expatriates."

The hutong-dwelling ambassador savors the classical and contemporary culture and says every detail reflects "the deeply culture-oriented nature of the Chinese people and their love for a very poetical form of beauty that combines harmony and balance, and a smooth and peaceful relation to the passing of time".

Food is another delight. Le Gall collects honey from all parts of China. And he believes that within a decade "the wine list of the most renowned restaurants in Paris, Bordeaux and Lyon will dare to propose the finest Chinese vintages".

"No need to add that I am a green tea drinker," he says. "Maybe in another life I was a taxi driver in China, as I always carry my green tea container with me."


(China Daily 01/25/2013 page20)

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