At the centre of the book is Duras’ affair with the son of a wealthy Chinese businessman that began when she was a schoolgirl aged 15, and he was 27. While this forms the nexus of the story, she also writes of her poverty-stricken family and their gradual, bitter estrangement.
Duras was born in Gia Dinh, a town north of Saigon, her father a teacher and her mother the head of a girls’ school. Her father died of amoebic dysentery, but her mother chose to stay in Saigon to raise her three children. Written in a kind of eddying, dreamy style, this is a complex reflection on mothers and daughters, adult responsibility, mental illness and addiction, set at a compellingly interesting juncture in history.
The backdrop is colonial Saigon, a teeming yet shadowy and sometimes oppressive city, seen from the perspective of a child who isn’t quite sure of her place in the world, but is certainly aware of its inequities and tragedies. While Duras is writing of a Saigon long-gone, she evokes an atmosphere that lingers still today: “I’m fifteen and a half, there are no seasons in that part of the world, we have just the one season, hot, monotonous, we’re in the long hot girdle of the earth, with no spring, no renewal.”
Duras published the book in 1984, when she was 70. To the extent that the novel is true (and there are various interpretations of this), the affair obviously simmered beneath the surface of her entire life: “The sound of the city’s so near, so close, you can hear it brushing against the wood of the shutters. It sounds as if they’re all going through the room. I caress his body amid the sound, the passers-by. The sea, the immensity, gathering, receding, returning. I asked him to do it again and again. Do it to me. And he did, did it in the unctuousness of blood. And it really was unto death. It has been unto death.”
Aside from this being a study in love, sex and family, Duras, who won France’s Prix Goncourt for The Lover, writes perceptively of the social niceties of the era. In particular, she astutely observes the position of French women in then Cochin-China (southern Vietnam during the French colonial period). She writes:
“They don’t do anything, just save themselves up, save themselves up for Europe, for lovers, holidays in Italy, the long six-months’ leaves every three years, when at last they’ll be able to talk about what it’s like here, this peculiar colonial existence, the marvellous domestic service provided by the houseboys, the vegetation, the dances, the white villas, big enough to get lost in, occupied by officials in distant outposts. They wait, these women. They dress just for the sake of dressing. They look at themselves. In the shade of their villas, they look at themselves for later on, they dream of romance, they already have huge wardrobes full of more dresses than they know what to do with, added together one by one like time, like the long days of waiting. Some of them go mad. Some are deserted for a young maid who keeps her mouth shut. Ditched. You can hear the word hit them, hear the sound of the blow. Some kill themselves.”
From the novel alone it’s hard to get a grip on how Duras feels about her own childhood; is she furious for being allowed to enter into such a liaison at such a young age? Is she furious for how it ended? There’s perhaps an ambivalence that comes with any coming of age story. Was one ready to come of age? Should one have been better protected, while at the same one wanted to break the rules? From today’s perspective, Duras was terribly neglected; eyes that should not have turned the other way indeed turned the other way. If this had been written from the perspective of her lover, we as readers would have undoubtedly been more horrified.
Whatever one makes of the affair, the book is worth reading for its perspective on life for a French family in colonial Vietnam. The era has long passed, but visitors to Vietnam today will still be struck by the lingering French influence across the country, from the architecture to the food to the culture. This book is a window into the people who created some of that influence, romanticised to an extent, but also quite brutally revealed.
The book has been adapted into a film starring Jane March and Tony Leung Ka Fai. Be warned that the back notes in the book aren’t too glowing about it: “Some consider it a masterpiece, others little more than soft porn.”
Read The Lover less for the eroticism (though it’s certainly erotic in parts) and more for the intriguing social and historical perspective that Duras was uniquely placed to provide.
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