In Brief

In Nestor, Stephen remembers sitting in the Ste. Geneviève libary beside a "delicate Siamese" who "conned a handbook of strategy." The first meaning of "con," according to the OED, is "To know." The third meaning is "To get to know; to study or learn, esp. by repetition (mental or vocal); hence, in wider sense, to pore over, peruse, commit to memory; to inspect, scan, examine." This Asian visitor to the French library seems to be poring over a treatise on resisting imperial encroachment and subjection.

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At the turn of the century Siam, the kingdom that preceded the 20th century state of Thailand, was pressured by French colonial ambitions on its eastern flank and British colonial ambitions in the northwest and south. These great European imperial powers, especially the French, repeatedly demanded territorial concessions from Siam. A 1904 Franco-Siamese "convention" ratified and expanded concessions extorted in 1867, 1888, and 1893. An Anglo-French convention, also in 1904, defined Siam's territory relative to the British holdings in Burma and Malaysia, and the French ones in Indochina. Siam suffered further losses in 1907 and 1909.

One ambition of empires, explored in Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011), is to spread their culture—language, religion, learning, political and legal systems, technological and industrial skills, art, leisure habits—to subject populations. But the process is seldom unilateral. The hegemon may absorb cultural practices and even leaders from the provinces, and its own values and ideas may be turned against it: "Many anti-colonial struggles were waged under the banners of self-determination, socialism and human rights, all of which are Western legacies" (225). India, unified under the British raj, was led to independence by Mohandas Gandhi, who studied law in London, mastered English speech and manners, absorbed European values, and insisted that they be applied abroad as they were at home.

The Siamese student is no Gandhi: his country has not yet been swallowed by an imperial power. But the "strategy" he is studying would seem to involve using French political or military theories to resist the French conqueror next door. Readers may want to reflect on the fact that Stephen is committed to a similar project: using the English language, and the cultural inheritance that comes with it, to write "Our national epic."

JH 2021
Encroachments on Siamese national territory in late 1800s and early 1900s. Source: Wikimedia Commons.