Excerpt of Le Colonial by Kien Nguyen
(Page 1 of 3)
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Avignon, France, 1771
The brush was a hickory twig, its end hammered into a soft, pointed
fringe. The painter drew it across the canvas, tracing a long stroke of
cobalt blue - the light of predawn. Another dash, a smear, a twist of the
bristles, and a cluster of areca palms silhouetted the horizon. The only
movement was a blur of wind across a colony of stars.
It was the first day of winter. The inside of the church was so cold that
he could see his breath in the candlelight. The painting was a rectangle of
oils on sheepskin, stretched on a wooden frame. Its image resembled nothing
of the splendor and immensity of the surrounding medieval architecture but
was cast in the bold colors of his imagination. Hanging by cords over his
wool coat was a collection of curios - fragments of broken clay pots,
pinecones, a metal goblet, clumps of feathers, a bird's wing. The rest of
his belongings were leaning against the wall - five rolls of unfinished
paintings, sketches, and a bundle of soiled clothes.
A deep voice echoed outside the realm of his concentration. Across the
room, a priest was reading from his notes to an assemblage of novices.
These tall palms, with trunks as straight and smooth as masts on a
ship, have simple crowns of large fan-shaped leaves. They grow in the deep
shadows of the ancient forest, surrounding picturesque rivers, mountains,
and villages. I have traveled through the mysterious lands of ancient
Tsiampa, visited the ruins of Angkor in Cambodia, and witnessed the vast
grace and wealth of the coastal cities of Cochin China . . .
The artist stepped back and examined his work. Its balance pleased him,
but it needed detail. He cleaned his brushes, fumbling through his pockets
for another color, a light green with a touch of blue. He imagined a bed of
vegetation carpeting the forest floor, as if anticipating the sun in the
Around him in the cathedral, sumptuous paintings, tapestries, and fresco
murals depicted the lives of saints and angels, their faces serene under
golden halos. Although it was his first time in Avignon, he knew its
history. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, the Palace of the Popes
had been erected as the new home for Pope Clement V after the authority of
the Holy See was shifted from Rome to Avignon. Now more than four hundred
and fifty years later, the palace complex was still one of the most
impressive Gothic castles in Europe, an imposing fortress made up of towers
linked by stone galleries. But to him, the wealth and the beauty lay in the
There in the exotic lands of Asia, the voice was reading, I beheld
the wide variety of human types, communities, and political regimes, which
are unknown to the Western world . . .
The cathedral he had chosen to work in was housed in the Tower of Saint
John - the quarter that was reserved for the resident scholars. As the first
pale gleam of sunlight glanced over a row of gray stone corridors, the young
man shivered. His eyes were burning, his stomach grumbling, his body aching.
It had been days since he had eaten a good meal or enjoyed a restful sleep.
The bustling city of Avignon had little hospitality for drifters, vagabonds,
Ahead of him, a long narrow passage led to the nave. Beneath a series of
tapestries depicting the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, seminarians from many
orders huddled on pews facing a black-robed priest. It was his voice the
painter was listening to. Above the altar, Christ hung on a cross, carved
from wood - his head bowed, his face hidden beneath a tangle of hair. It was
an image that the artist had copied over and over, trying to invoke Jesus'
From Le Colonial by Kien Nguyen, pages 3-8 of the
hardcover edition. Copyright © 2004 by Nguyen-Andrews, LLC