Jules Boissière: The Buddha (From Occitan)

Born in 1863, Jules Boissière (Juli Boïssièra) spent his early years as a journalist, hobnobbing with the likes of Amouretti and Murras, and writing anemic verse with great virtuosity in two languages. In 1886 he changed careers, and headed for Hanoi, part of the recently consolidated territory of French Indo-China. He served in the 11th Alpine Infantry Battalion, and saw combat in some of the last few battles to conquer the Tonkinese countryside, before beginning his tenure in the French administrative corps in Saigon and Huế where he learned the language today known as Vietnamese, acquired at least a basic knowledge of Classical Chinese, and cultivated the fondness for opium for which he was to become notorious. He served a long post in Bình Định before returning to France to marry Thérèse Roumanille (Terèsa Romanilha), daughter of Joseph Roumanille the reactionary patriarch of the Provençal Félibre movement. Boissière returned to Tonkin with his wife in 1892, taking stewardship of the Revue Indochinoise. After another leave of absence in 1895, he was promoted to Vice-Resident 1st Class and died a painful intestinal death two years later.
Boissière wrote prolifically, but published little during his life. He is now best remembered for his collection of French Indo-Chinese short stories titled Fumeurs d'Opium "Opium Smokers". He also produced a sizable amount of poetry, both in French and in Occitan, a lot of which — particularly that from his later years — is extremely good. It is likely that some of his poetry remains unpublished. A posthumous collection of his Occitan verse Li Gabian "The Seagulls" was published in 1899 by his wife, who extracted the poems from among his manuscripts. Reading it, I have come across quite a few interesting pieces, the more so because generally "colonial exotic" themes are rare in Occitan literature of this period, which preoccupied itself mostly with its own soil. Like the stories in Fumeurs d'Opium, some of the poems deal with Chinese and Indo-Chinese themes. Interwoven with long odes of nostalgic yearning for his native country and rhapsodies to his fellow félibres, one finds things like an imaginative sonnet depicting a Chinese Princess reading Li Bai, or some lusciously lilting lines about stargazing from a boat gliding down the Mekong. Some are of a piece with some of the best of his French "oriental" poems such as Pays Perdu or Sumatra. And then there are three or four poems where he goes Next Level, as in the one translated here, which caught me completely by surprise. It is like nothing at all that he wrote in French that I've seen. I was not expecting this. Not even a little bit.

The Buddha
By Jules Boissière
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Our soldiers won then torched a domicile. 
The owner with his sons ran half a mile
Under gunfire. On the ancestors' altar
Not guarding the old creeds or their old shelter,
The Buddha gave the wolfish men a smile.

How many hours has it been since! Where now
Is that house? Where's the pudgy god whose brow
And smile are sign of fate's indifferent law?
When man beneath mute Heaven prays or cries
I see again that Buddha's ruddy jaw,
His moonlike face and his two tranquil eyes.

Audio of me reading this poem in Occitan


The Original:

Though Boissière was a native speaker of Lengadocian Occitan, he like the rest of his generation wrote in Provençal Occitan, specifically the variety of Rhodanian Provençal which had been raised to literary status by Mistral and others among the Félibrige movement. I give the poem in original Roumanille-Mistralian orthography, copied directly from Li Gabian, and in the more recent  classicizing orthography. For all future Provençal texts in Roumanille-Mistralian orthography, I plan to include a parallel version in classical orthography.

Classical Orthography
Lo Boddha
Juli Boïssièra

Brulavan un ostau, nòstei sodards vincèires;
— Lo mèstre ambé sei fius peralin fugissiá
Sota la fusilhada; e sus l'autar dei rèires,
Luènh d'aparar l'ostau, l'autar e lei vièlhs crèires,
Ais òme' alobatits lo Boddha sorrisiá

Quant d'ora' an debanat desempèi! Monte es ara
L'ostau? Monte es lo Dièu poput de quau la cara
Sorrisenta retrais lo Sòrt indifferent?
— E sota lo cèu mut, quand l'òme prèga e crida,
Revese dau Boddha lei gauta' acoloridas
E sa fàcia de luna, e sei vistóns serens.
Original Orthography
Lou Bouddha
Juli Bouissiero

Brulavon un oustau nòsti soudard vincèire;
Lou mèstre emé si fiéu peralin fugissié
Souto la fusihado; e sus l’autar di rèire,
Liuen d’apara l’oustau, l’autar e li vièi crèire,
Is ome aloubati lou Bouddha sourrisié.

Quant d’ouro an debana desempèi! Mounte es aro
L’oustau? Mount es lou diéu poupu de quau la caro
Sourrisènto retrais lou sort indiferènt?
E souto lou cèu mut, quand l’ome prègo e crido,
Revese dóu Bouddha li gauto acoulourido,
E sa fàci de luno, e si vistoun seren.

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