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Three days with Graham Greene

By Jean-Christophe RUFIN Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi

It was around 4 a.m. Which is no time to be disturbed, especially in a hotel like the Metropole, where even in the middle of the day the staff hardly makes a sound. But I was not dreaming: There was a scratching at my door.
I was in Hanoi for a series of scientific conferences and because the hotel was a sponsor of the event, I was being treated like a VIP. In the suite that I had been given, there was a large sitting room and a bedroom. I was lying now in the enormous bed, under a blue and yellow canopy. My wife had left for Haiphong earlier in the day and I was to meet her in three days for a visit to Halong Bay. Which meant that I had the bed to myself for the moment.
Ordinarily this would have delighted me: I could stretch out, make myself at home, sleep sideways. But the Metropole’s bed was so vast, so soft, with such an abundant variety of pillows (including a little sack filled with beans that I had selected from the array of samples) that the solitude was unsettling and prevented me from enjoying a deep sleep.
The initial scratches woke me. I thought at first that it was a bad dream, but then when the noise persisted, there remained no doubt: Someone was at my door. I flipped on the light, slipped into my robe, and went to the living room. I put my ear to the door and listened. There was the sound again.
“Who’s there? What do you want?” I whispered somewhat meekly.
“Hmmmmm! Please…”
The voice coming through the thick wood was deep and husky.
Probably a drunk American who can’t find his room, I thought. Or whose wife had thrown him out. The latter worried me more.
I opened the door carefully.
The paneled hallway was illuminated by a series of large porcelain lamps. I saw before me a tall man, but I couldn’t make out his features. He was wearing a long trench coat, tightly belted.
“Please,” he implored.

He turned and shot a glance down the corridor, as if to see whether anyone had heard him.
“This is the ‘Graham Greene Suite,’ isn’t it?” he asked, indicating the brass plaque next to the door with his chin.
“So it is.”
“O.K., then let me in. I’ll explain.”

 

The long, quiet corridor was an oddly reassuring sight. It reminded me that I was in a palace, the most famous hotel in Indochina, and that more than 600 people were employed here; at the slightest cry, a battalion of guards would surely come running. I was in no danger. I opened the door and let the man in.
He looked exhausted, flopping onto the sofa with a sigh of relief.
The living room had a table at which eight people could have comfortably been seated for dinner. Each evening, a delivery of assorted macarons and appetizers was placed there, with a card that explained the ingredients of each. I noticed that the man was eyeing the platter, so I offered it to him.
“Have some. Can I make you some tea?”
“With pleasure,” he replied as he bent over the delicacies.
He put one in his mouth and then stood up, groaning with pleasure.
“God, these people know how to live!”

 

I observed him: He looked to be in his 80s, with an emaciated face and a few strands of hair combed back on his head. He was extremely pale and there were purple bags under his eyes. He spoke good French, with a thick English accent. He reminded me of someone. But who?
“Are you going to explain to me now…?”

I had turned off the air conditioning for the night. Hanoi’s damp heat had thus seeped little by little into my room. I was sweating, but my visitor’s skin remained dry.
“Graham Greene,” he said.
Grimacing, he took a sip of tea.
“Yes,” I said, “this is indeed the Graham Greene suite. On the floor above, there’s the Somerset Maugham suite, and I think there’s a Charlie Chaplin suite somewhere, too.”
The man shrugged.
“Ridiculous,” he mumbled. “In any case, I’m Graham Greene.”

 

Finally, at that moment, as he fixed me with his pale eyes, I understood. I got up and went to get the photograph hanging on the wall near the bedroom door. It showed a man in his 40s, staring straight at the camera, not smiling. Below the photo it said:
Graham Greene, 1904-1991. Sitting down, I put the portrait on my knees and looked at the man. The eyes were the same and the face was basically the same, although time had carved wrinkles that rendered it virtually unrecognizable.
“1991…” I murmured.
“Yes,” my guest sighed, loosening the belt of his trench coat. “I’ve been dead for 21 years. Is that what you mean?”
How could I respond to such a question? And anyway, was it a question? He came to my aid.
“I’m going to tell you a secret,’’ he said. “I didn’t want to refuse your tea, but I don’t really care for this beverage. Would you happen to have a good whisky?” Because I hesitated, he added:
“Or a bad one, for that matter.”

 

I looked everywhere, coming up with some fruit juice and red wine, but no whisky. Seeing that he was set on it, I called room service. In less than three minutes, even at that late hour, a waiter arrived with a bottle of single malt whisky. As soon as the employee had left, my visitor opened the door of the bathroom where he had been hiding. He was doubly happy: first because of the whisky and also because our complicity was now complete. I had hidden him once; now I would have to continue…

 

He had removed his trench coat, revealing a suit with a double-breasted jacket. A club tie was loosely knotted around the
pointed collar of his white shirt, which was badly discolored.
“Pardon me for asking, but… what have you been doing since 1991?’’
He turned his pale eyes toward me. The whisky had reignited a faint flame in them.
“That’s a good question. What do dead people do? I’ve often asked myself that. Before… I suppose you think of the great beyond as some sort of endless retirement home. ‘Eternal rest’…”
He gave a terrible little laugh, his mouth half open. I had the impression that he was empty inside, as if there was nothing but an envelope before me. But he was gulping down his whisky with zeal and I had to give him a refill in no time.

 

“Unfortunately,’’ he began, “I must disappoint you. It’s not like you think. It’s not harmony, happiness and bliss. To put it bluntly: It’s
seriously boring.’’
“So is retirement, I hear.”
“It’s not at all the same. Retired people are free. They can move, mix with others, travel.”
He leaned forward and I caught a whiff of his icy breath.
“And they can still commit sins,” he added with delight.

He then sat back up, looking glum again.
“As strange as it might seem given the life that I lived, they sent me to heaven. Because of ‘The Power and the Glory.’ That’s not the only misunderstanding that book gave rise to.”
He sighed.
“The result, in any case, is that I’m surrounded by admirable people,” he exclaimed with a touch of humor, “veritable saints.
Can you imagine: Most of them deserve to be there. All their lives, they were nice, polite, generous, temperate, devoted. They never said a bad thing about anyone. Can you imagine what it’s like to spend all your time with people like that? Especially me, who was always horrified by innocent people!”
I could see that he was looking for something to calm himself. He was eyeing a little package of chocolates that the staff had placed on the table just like every night.
“May I?”
Before I could answer, he had opened the package and slipped two pieces into his mouth.

 

“I can’t tell you much more about what goes on up there,” he then said soberly.
He’s keeping that information for the MI6, I thought, meanly. Even dead, an Englishman remains an Englishman.
“After all,” he sighed, “they are decent people. The organizers, I mean. They do what they can to keep us happy, despite it all.
They realize that I’m unhappy, but unfortunately they don’t have what I’m missing. Such things are too… terrestrial.”

 

Day was beginning to break on the other side of the blinds.
Despite the double-glazing, we could hear the faint sound of car horns.
“So they decided to give me a leave. Every 20 years. I know, 1991, it should have been last year. But you know how bureaucracy is…”
“Did you choose to come here?”
“Yes, and, believe me, it wasn’t easy to decide. I knew so many countries in my life. Black Africa, Latin America, the Arab world, the whole Europe… I had time to recall them all in detail. And finally I came to the conclusion that none of those places, despite their qualities and charm, were indispensable for me. Or, I might say, essential.”
“Except Vietnam.”
“Exactly! When I really thought about it, as I sat there amid all those bridge players, those matronly patrons and altruistic pastors, I decided that for me, the true heaven was the Far East.”
“And why here in particular?”
“It was a difficult choice. But there is something different about Vietnam. It’s a country that has everything: refinement and cruelty, intelligence and resignation, excrement and perfume, perversity and naïveté, rabid determination, like Ho Chi Minh, for example, and total passivity, like the rickshaw drivers.”
“There aren’t any more rickshaw drivers, except for the ones who chauffeur the tourists.”
“Ah!” he exclaimed dreamily. “That’s possible. I wouldn’t know. I came straight here.”
“And why did you choose Hanoi? You had spent more time in Saigon.”
“I lived in Saigon by default: because of the war, in ’51, Tonkin was the soldiers’ playground. The press was brought safely in under guard. And you know that I was viewed as a spy.”
“Imagine that!”
The irony seemed to escape him.
“The truth is that I prefer the people in the north of this country.
They’re more profound, more willful, more endearing, if it’s possible to make such generalities. And the women are as hard as rocks but so smooth to the touch…”

He seemed moved by his memories and, perhaps to mask his discomfort, he rose and went to the window. Through the slits of the shutters, he studied the square below with its stone fountain.
“It’s unbelievable how the French spread their provinces everywhere. We could be in Marmande…”
Suddenly, he threw open the windows and was about to unlatch the shutters. I hurried over.
“It’s better if you don’t show yourself. Or maybe we should just go straight to the reception desk and announce that you’re here.”
“Don’t even think of it! They would never believe you. And if by some miracle you managed to convince them who I am, they would line up a grueling program of conferences, signatures and official meetings. I don’t want them to ruin my stay.”

He sat back down. He was bathed in morning light, but it seemed to pass almost right through him. I had the impression that he was
virtually transparent.
“My intention is clear: When I decided upon my destination, Hanoi, I told myself that I wanted to spend all the time I had been allotted here, at the Hotel Metropole.”
He sighed, looking longingly at the decoration of the suite that bore his name, with its mahogany furniture shining in the new sunlight, its ceiling fans, the white orchids in blue porcelain pots.
“There you have it, sir. Now you know the dreams of the dead.
Especially if they are not completely dead… when they are alive.
When they lived, that is.”

*

After that confession, I didn’t have the heart to refuse this poor man whatever pleasure he desired. We arranged for him not to attract too much attention. I lent him some clothes of a tourist: a Hawaiian shirt, khaki pants and sandals. In one of the hotel boutiques, I managed to buy him a baseball cap with a long visor and big sunglasses that covered half of his face. While we got ready, I kept the cleaning women at bay thanks to the “Do not disturb” sign.

When his metamorphosis into an almost normal client had been completed, we attempted the first test: entering the corridor. It worked marvelously. The employees whom we passed greeted us cordially. We went down the great staircase so as not to risk the promiscuity of an elevator. Even drenched in cologne, my companion still seemed to reek of the cellar. On the stairs, he was overcome with amazement. The Metropole’s landings are open in the middle, where an enormous chandelier hangs from the fourth floor all the way to the lobby.
“It wasn’t at all like this before. You see those railings with little columns all around the middle? When there were parties, which there were almost every night, the French officers leaned over them with their Vietnamese girlfriends. On the first floor, there was a piano playing dance hall tunes and everyone on the three floors would sing around this great, empty middle, like in a Western.

Every once in awhile some drunk fellow would jump over the railing and end up in the lobby with a broken leg. Everyone would clap and raise their glasses. It was very gay and absolutely disgraceful. Usually I would flee, drinking in a bar down the street where there were no soldiers.”

He was talking quite loudly and I was afraid that he would attract the attention of the bellboys in the lobby. I tugged his sleeve and we continued our descent. He marveled at everything in the hotel, discovering once again the ambiance of his era, the late-19 th century charm of the building, the dark wood, the porcelain, the red fabrics.

 

“At the same time,” he exclaimed, “everything is so clean, so new…”
This contrast pleased him. He didn’t miss the filth or clutter of the past. We went outside, and there, across the street, stood the resident general’s old palace. I suggested that we take a ride in the hotel’s rickshaws, for old time’s sake. He got in one of the rickety vehicles and I rode behind in another. I watched him relax, taking in the monuments and boutiques.

We went around the Petit Lac, first on its “French” side, home to the Metropole and most of the colonial-era buildings, and then on
the “local” side, with its alleys and unimaginably disordered organization of artisans’ shops. When the visit was over, I asked the driver to drop us off near the Pagoda so that we could have a coffee beside the lake. Not surprisingly, my companion preferred a Ricard with little more than a dash of water.

“Did you see those French people in the street? In the colonial times, there weren’t so many.”
“Yes, but in those days, they were the masters. Today, they’re tourists.”
“Still, it’s weird. They waged war to get them out and now they watch as 10 times more arrive.”

 

I understood that he liked to point out this kind of paradox, like some sort of mind-game, because he found it so hard to believe himself. It was the fuel that he needed to start up the slow motor of reflection.

“It’s strange all this, colonialism, the European empires… In the end, the English and the French fell into the trap. They wanted to bring civilization to backward people and, at the same time, get a good deal by stealing their resources. But they’re the ones who ended up losing. Everything comes from Asia now: cars, capital, even priests… In terms of civilization, the Vietnamese proved their worth long ago: They let foreigners come, whether it be the Chinese or the Europeans, they take from them what they want and then they throw them out.”

“It wasn’t really as easy as that. You’re forgetting the Vietnamese who died in the two world wars, the suffering of the people, the cruelty of the struggle for independence.”
“I’m not saying that it was all fun and games. But in the end, they won.”
Just then a group of French tourists passed, following a guide with a red umbrella.

 

“You can’t imagine what it’s like to see the military patrols of the past replaced by these squadrons of tourists. And do you know what the main difference is?”
“The weapons, I suppose?”
“Not really. It’s their ages. The soldiers were young men in good health. The tourists are generally senior citizens, a bit flabby, not in great shape. Now youth is on this side.”

He continued his dissertation on the subject for some time, and, I admit, after awhile I didn’t listen anymore.

 

In late afternoon we returned to the hotel. As night was falling, it was less risky to stroll in the garden, which was lit by muted lamps. We had dinner in one of the hotel’s restaurants, the one that offered Vietnamese cuisine. Madame Nguyen Kim Nhung, who manages the place, came to present the specialties in person. We washed down the food with magnificent French wines. Graham was so happy that I had to ask him several times to keep it down.

 

I slept like a log. My roommate, however, spent the night in the living room, watching all the channels on the television.

The next day, we expanded our field of action: I rented a taxi for the day and the driver took us along the river banks, to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, to the citadel, etc. The classic tour.

 

Graham’s nose was stuck to the window. He glumly contemplated the city. From time to time, his observations revealed that he was comparing what he was seeing with his memories.

“I thought they would never give up their bicycles.”

Scooters had replaced bikes for the most part. At intersections, we were sometimes stuck in immense traffic jams, hemmed in by nothing but scooters. Soon, my visitor’s reflections were concentrated on what was to become the theme of the day.

“Frankly, would you say that they lost the war?”
“Who?”
“The Americans.”

We were traveling along a wide commercial street lined with enormous colored signs over stores filled with home appliances, clothing, video equipment.

“They were fighting communism, or did I misunderstand?” he asked with a wicked smirk.

“The communist structures are still in place,” I noted.

He shrugged.

“This is the contemporary form of authoritarian power. In this country, there has often been an authoritarian power, and I think many people think it’s necessary. It’s the price to pay… for freedom.”

 

I decided it was not a good idea to engage in a discussion on this topic. He seemed to be a bit touchy about it.

“It’s strange how these stupid Americans always win,” he added a bit later. “If they are victorious, like in Europe, they spread their influence. But if they are defeated, like here, it’s the same thing:
The victors end up imitating them and adopting their culture. It only happens to them. Imagine if after the First World War the French and English had started wearing pointed helmets and eating Wienerschnitzel!”

When we got back to the hotel, I found a message from the director. I feared the worst, but in fact he was inviting me to a private visit of the hotel’s bunker. It had been walled shut after the war, but the director had now had it reopened. It was an historic place: Joan Baez and Jane Fonda had both taken refuge there during American bombing raids…

I invited Graham to join me. He declined the offer.

“Thanks, but I’ve had enough. I was already buried once.”

I ordered him a Martini at the bar and went off to visit the bunker by myself. When I returned, I told him that it was indeed nothing special. Blasé, he raised his eyebrows. He was grouchy for the rest of the day, caustically bemoaning American naïveté from time to time.

“The guy up there piloting his bomber was as convinced as Mother Fonda in her bunker that he was defending a just cause.
All of them are gullible, altruistic, blind, innocents who behave like cynics. And they always end up being right.”

I left him to gripe alone and went for a sauna in the superb spa above the swimming pool. My guest was becoming a nuisance. At first, I had found him amusing, but now I had to admit that he wasn’t really funny at all. I wanted to be rid of him. When I emerged from the sauna, fresh and relaxed, I came upon my buddy striding up and down the hallway.

“You’re here!” he exclaimed upon seeing me. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you. I have to talk to you.”

I brought him to the VIP lounge on the top floor of the new building, sitting him down next to a shelf full of beautiful books about Asia. He didn’t even glance at them. He sat on the edge of his chair, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, his eyes beaming.

“So,” he said breathlessly, “I met a woman.”

I had been expecting this. Given this fellow’s reputation when he had been alive, I knew there was a good chance he would bring up women or opium. Concerning opium, I had already prepared my response: no. It was out of the question to play around with it in a country with such tight surveillance. Women were a lesser evil.

“And who is she, if I may ask?”

He launched into a lengthy description of the beauty, grace, elegance and sensuality of the person in question. He had passed her in the hall and they had spoken briefly. A waiter now appeared before us. I ordered double Scotches.

“Tell me a bit more. What does she look like?”

He provided a detailed description of the princess charming. As he did so, I grew more and more pale. There was no doubt in my mind that the woman was the hotel’s head of public relations.

“Mademoiselle Thieu!” I cried.
“Oh!” he sighed, clearly enamoured. “Her name is Thieu…”
“Listen, Graham: Forget the whole thing right now. If you want a woman, I suppose I could arrange it, although I don’t really want to be pimping. But Mademoiselle Thieu is an honorable woman who has an important position here. Leave her alone.”

He looked down.

“Anyway,” I continued, hoping to put an end to the discussion, “she has a fiancé. An Argentinian who is working in city. The Argentinians are very jealous”.

“So what? You think he might kill me?”
I didn’t appreciate his humor, and he saw that I was growing angry.

“It’s not like that,” he added genially. “What are you thinking? Before I leave, I just want to have a night in the city with Thieu on my arm, take her to a restaurant or a show and look at her, only look at her.”

“Even so! Find someone else.”

He looked desperate now, and he tried relentlessly for the next hour or so to convince me of the innocence of his project. Finally, he put his boney hand on my sleeve and said with disarming gentleness:
“It’s the last favor I will ask of you. After that, I’ll leave.
“The argument was strong. ”
“Oh all right,” I said at last, capitulating. “I’ll see what I can do.”

I have no idea how I did it. It was miraculous. I spoke to Mademoiselle Thi, standing in the corridor, as she looked at me fixedly with her beautiful face, in which it was impossible to detect the slightest expression. I was thrown off when she blinked her eyes without saying a word. Finally, I stopped talking. She paused for a moment, then said:

“There’s a recital at the opera tonight. Your friend can accompany me.”

Now I was the one who could have kissed her.

At 8 o’clock, Graham was at last ready. He was wearing one of my shirts, had combed his four strands of hair and, following my advice, doused himself in cologne. He gave me a little wave as he left.

I killed the time watching television until midnight. I was dozing off when the door opened. Graham came in, took off his trench coat and sat down in the armchair, staring ahead.

“Are you O.K.?”
There was no response.
“Did something happen? I hope you didn’t make a scene.”
He finally seemed to become aware of my presence.
“It was…” he began slowly, “it was… the most beautiful day of my death.”
“Very funny. But what happened?”
“That woman is marvelous. We crossed the streets holding hands.
Did you know the opera house is just next door? It was all lit up.
Like a little Palais Garnier! She was dressed simply but so elegantly. Her lips were shining under the chandeliers…”
“And the performance?”
“Wonderfully talented Vietnamese singers. They performed the bell solo from ‘The Magic Flute’ with such delicacy! If I was not so dried up inside, I would have cried.”

“And then you brought her back to the hotel as promised?”
“First we went to have ice cream in a restaurant, with a lovely view over the lake. She was fine with that.”
“She didn’t… recognize you, I hope.”
“She’s a discreet woman. Even if she suspected something, she didn’t let on.”
He stretched out his legs and, his hands behind his neck, added, “I’m fulfilled.”
“Good.”

“You know, that woman is… is… she is this country. I don’t know if you understand what I mean. There is the surface of things, events, wars, Americans who replace the French, capitalism and communism, all these frothy waves, and then, underneath, there’s the ocean, the mass of water, a people and its eternal truth. For me this woman is what remains unchanged, the essential. Did you read ‘The Quiet American’? You remember Phuong?

“The young Vietnamese woman whom the narrator wants to keep at all costs, even through betrayal and lies?”
“ ‘The narrator’! I don’t need those literary pretensions anymore; now I can say ‘I’… You know what I’m willing to do to keep her. Or to find her. She’s why I came back. It doesn’t matter that Mademoiselle Thieu and Phuong are two different people. For me, it’s the same soul, you see?”

 

He pinched the bridge of his nose, exhausted. So I let him sleep, or dream.

 

In the middle of the night, I opened my eyes and found him standing next to my bed, his trench coat belted tight.
“What do you want?” I asked, sitting up.
“I want to thank you.”
“At this hour?”
“Unfortunately, I have to go. They’re waiting for me.”
“Well, good-bye. Have a good time… in heaven.”
“Perhaps we’ll meet there someday. Although I wouldn’t wish it for you. If I were you, I’d keep on sinning…”
“Thanks for the advice.”
“By the way… don’t tell anyone about my visit. No one would believe you.”
He smiled and winked, then left the room. I heard the click of the door to the hallway closing.
And then I went back to sleep.