As an anthropologist he was recognized as a giant in the field in France and in Vietnam, but somehow less so in the English speaking world.
‘Condo’ was born in Vietnam in 1921 from a mixed background, went to Lycée in France in the 1930s and came back to Vietnam to study visual arts at the École des Beaux-Arts d’Indochine in Hanoi, but he quickly dropped out and developed an interest for the study of ethnologie.
In 1947 he came back to Vietnam for prolonged field research among the Mnong Gar in the village of Sar Luk in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
His research was interrupted by a sudden disease which compelled him to go back to France.
The research resulted in a beautiful monograph,
“Nous avons mangé la forêt de la pierre-génie Gôo (1957)”,
written in the form of an ethnographic diary – or better: a chronicle – of the events in the village for one entire year, with an elaborate set of indexes.
It was an ethnographic experiment that foreshadowed the later ‘literary turn’ and ‘postmodern turn’ in anthropology, although he never considered himself a postmodernist and although he never quite received the credits for his pioneering style in the English speaking world.
That was different in France and in Vietnam.
The 2006 opening of the new Musée du Quai Branly in Paris – successor of the Musée de l’Homme – was celebrated with a temporary exhibition about Condo’s research in Sar Luk.
The exhibition travelled to Vietnam (Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi) as well, and the person of Condo is seen by many Vietnamese ethnologists as the embodiment of ‘real’ in-depth anthropology, and thus as one of the major influences in Vietnamese anthropology.
Condo was never shy to speak out on political developments.
His stance against French colonial rule in Indochina brought him in conflict with the colonial authorities, and closed colonial Madagascar as field site for him.
His shock at the treatment of his erstwhile research subjects during a return visit to Sar Luk in the early 1960s – including confinement, torture and murder at the hands of US Special Forces – made him speak out against the US intervention in Vietnam and against what he considered ethnocide – a now common term that he first invented – in his book L’exotique est quotidien (The exotic is everyday).
He accused the US Embassy in Saigon of illegally translating and distributing his first monograph which he felt was used for the ethnocide of the people described in it, and was moreover shocked that it appeared without indexes.
In 1972 he delivered an impassioned distinguished lecture at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association about the difficult relationship between anthropology and warfare; later on he told me about his experiences – as a métis – with the racist attitudes in the US during various visiting professorships in the 1960s.
Condo continued to work and publish on a wide variety of topics – mythology, linguistics, slavery, state formation, swidden and fixed agriculture, to name but a few topics – based on research in various countries and territories.
He also had literary talent, as was clear from his Foreword to a new edition of Chateaubriand’s 1844 novel La vie de Rancé, which acquired a special meaning for Condo after an extremely traumatic event in his personal life.
In spite of tragedy, Condo was someone who enjoyed life to the fullest and to some extent turned his own life into a work of art – loving public attention and recognition for his work and his person.
For me – as for many other anthropologists in France and beyond – Condo was a mentor and a source of inspiration, who was extremely generous to students and younger scholars.
I first met him when I came to Paris in 1983, preparing for my studies on – later also in – Vietnam.
He invited me to do research at the Centre de Documentation et Recherche sur l’Asie du Sud-Est et Monde Insulindien (CeDRASEMI) which he had set up in Valbonne, just outside Antibes on the French Côte d’Azur, but which – as an experiment in French academic decentralization – was short-lived.
After my fieldwork in Vietnam’s Central Highlands he invited me back to Paris in 1992 to give a presentation at his séminaire in Paris, and I had the good fortune that he was willing to be an external examiner for my doctoral dissertation in Amsterdam.
When I worked in Vietnam in the second half of the 1990s I hosted him when he participated in a conference on customary law in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
After that, whenever my work brought me to Paris I tried to meet him.
The last time I visited him was in March 2009; by that time his health was not so robust anymore.
With Condo another giant whose life spanned various periods in the history of Vietnam’s Central Highlands has gone on – after Jacques Dournes and Gerald Hickey.
Georges Condominas was an inspirational and generous scholar, somebody with artistic talent and with political courage.
The world will be emptier without him.
He leaves behind his wife Claire Merleau-Ponty and his children; as well as numerous scholars who call themselves Condo’s pupils and students.
By Oscar Salemink (*)
(*) Professor in the Anthropology of Asia Department of Anthropology Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Copenhagen