François Cheng, a Frenchman from China

A long road to unite myself with French singing

by Francois Cheng

Albin Michel, 246 pages, €17.90


Notebook “François Cheng”

Herne, 288 p., €33

“I was in the depths of China, without having ever seen a sea! (…) By who knows what torturous and miraculous path, I became a French poet. » At 93, François Cheng recounts the long journey that made him one of the most precious writers in the French language. A modest and intimate testimony, his new book is both a testament and a declaration of love. To language, to poetry, to France. To life and death, too, as one of the poetic outbursts at the end of the book celebrates: “Let’s not forget our deaths or our own death, it’s the duty to die that pushes us towards momentum. »

It took this stubborn momentum to leave the province of Chongqing and arrive in France at the age of 19, with no other baggage than having read Balzac and Hugo, Zola and Anatole France. But didn’t Cheng Chi-hsien receive a mission when he was a teenager? “You who are thirsty, be song. Sing and you will be saved, and everything will be saved”promises him a ” presence “ heard in adolescence. Arrived in France in 1948, he began a patient journey of learning: “French land will be my land; the French language will be my language. (…) In the meantime, I have to start from scratch. »

Two cultures

With modesty, the exile evokes without dwelling on the fragility of material conditions, preferring to revive the memory of the readings – “Gide and Rilke, the two tutelary figures of my young age in China” – and remember the meetings, Claude Roy, Gaston Berger, André Gide, Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan. 1960 marked the entry into the Center for Chinese Linguistics and the first translation works. In 1977 appears Chinese poetic writingand, the following year, empty and full. The Chinese pictorial language is at the heart of his work: “It’s an understatement to say that I navigate between two cultures, performing a passionate back and forth proper to an act of nuptials”, writes today François Cheng who owes this new first name chosen during his naturalization in 1971 to the “Poverello of Assisi”. It is with his first novel, The Tale of Tianyi (Albin Michel, Femina 1998) that the general public discovers the writer from China: “I face a profession that cannot be learned: to exist”murmurs the double of the author.

Elected to the French Academy, he still confesses his love of the language during his reception under the Coupole, June 19, 2003: “That someone has no other merit than that of having, above all, loved his adopted language to the point, it is true, of making it his flesh and blood, that is a miracle. » In a special issue of Notebooks of the Herne dedicated to François Cheng, Christiane Rancé pays tribute to the inner man. The frail silhouette is inhabited by a strength of soul, a demanding spirit: “He forced me to enter into his rhythm, to marry his desire to slow down the course of his thoughts to allow the time necessary for him to unfold. » The Herne still brings together texts by the writer, calligraphy and tributes paid to the poet. He who put universal words on what it is to be alive: “My songhe writes, will perpetuate the unheard cries of the living and the dead. »

On the evening of a lifetime, the grateful academician marvels at this long journey: “To have known life, to have lived, is far from being a trivial thing; it is even the most incredible, the most unthinkable thing that can happen within this boundless universe. »

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