Sun, 09 Mar 2003

Van Moppes continues symphaty for Asian women

Kunang Helmi-Picard Contributor Paris

Tall and vivacious, the French writer Catherine van Moppes, is of Russian and Dutch origin. With her long dark hair and oriental features, she is often mistaken for an Indian from the north of the subcontinent.

Catherine's life and work revolve between Europe and Asia. She has just published a novel which takes place in France and in the Dutch East Indies.

From her outward appearance, this passionate lady could also be mistaken for an 'Indo' girl in the Dutch East Indies, like the heroine in her novel: "Since I was very young, not only did I look different, I always felt different from the average French girl. I also lived in a world of books and wrote stories on my own since I was little!"

Van Moppes never really knew her Dutch father and grew up surrounded by her Russian family in Paris. Her mother's family originated from around Tashkent which once belonged to the southernmost part of the Soviet Union.

Driven by her early propensity to write, she continued, while still at school, by working for legendary artist Henri Langlois who headed the Francaise' - with its collection of milestone films in Paris - and his wife Mary Meerson, a writer. As a teenager her ambition was to become a script writer.

Catherine soon began writing experimental scenarios nurtured by encounters with film greats Orson Welles, Bunuel, Kurosawa and many others.

Then Van Moppes left for the United States for an apprenticeship at the Cinematheque in New York. Back from the U.S., her first book, d'Amerique, about her impressions there, was published by Albin Michel and she began writing for magazines. Soon the slim adventurous girl was off again, this time to China where she lived from 1965 to 1968.

Van Moppes reported on the turbulent events there for important French publications avid to hear about this largely unknown country. Inevitably she wrote her second book Chacun sa Chine and participated in a television film La Chine au Coeur Rouge. It was in Beijing where she met the French diplomat and sinologist whom she later married.

Back in Paris as a journalist, it was not long before she left again for Asia. Catherine van Moppes arrived in Indonesia in the early 1970s when her son was only a few months old. Here in Jakarta, the writer was immediately submerged into the mainly Javanese flavored atmosphere of Menteng when life was still slow and friendly: "I remember our house on Jl. Lembang very clearly, all the different sounds of food-vendors on the street. How I used to take the becak (pedicab) around the area to visit my friends and also converse with everybody on the streets.

She and her husband took Indonesian lessons at the Parisian Oriental Language Institute and could thus fully appreciate the Indonesians that they encountered from all walks of life.

Her husband's career as a diplomat in Asia took them to Hanoi, Vientiane, Singapore, Taiwan and twice to Jakarta. In Hanoi between 1976 to 1978, Van Moppes reported on the Vietnam just recovering from the long war and continued writing a mixture of political fiction and short stories.

While in Laos for five years, she wrote a book of poetry called De Nager (Desire to swim). Later when her husband was stationed in the Pacific, Van Moppes would often return to Jakarta for several weeks.

All in all, Catherine van Moppes has spent almost 20 years in Asia and continues to sympathize with Asian women. Regarding Indonesia, she admires the independence of women there, especially in the 1980s: "These women discreetly carried on their professional careers while still being wonderful mothers and elegant, attractive wives."

Her curiosity about the past history of Asian women, specially those in the Dutch East Indies, was aroused, and she began three years of serious research to prepare for her recently published novel Emilie, Java 1904. She is deeply impressed by Raden Ayu Kartini and the egalitarian ideas of Abendanon about education.

Van Moppes imagined a young French woman educated solely by her progressive widower father in the countryside near Bordeaux, a cosmopolitan French harbor with many trade connections overseas.

Emilie meets a wealthy young French man, Lucien Bernieres, who is destined to travel to the Dutch East Indies as a colonial administrator and partake in the new and experimental Ethical Policy.

Love, passion, women's rights, France and the discovery of a paradise with its hitherto unknown sensuality are skillfully bound together with the beginnings of Indonesian nationalism to create an exciting novel.

A sequel which is to take place in China is now being prepared by Van Moppes. These two novels will not only mirror the fictive destiny of a young French woman, but also reflect the historical background of Asia's political awakening in the early days of the 20th century.

Those lucky enough to read French can order the book published by Albin Michel in December 2002 from In the meantime Van Moppes' hopes are high for an English version of the novel. It would make for exciting reading for those who move between East and West and also for those unfamiliar with Asian history