Love in the Time of Colonies

by Kenneth Champeon, Dec 6, 2002 | Destinations: Vietnam / Indochina / Ho Chi Minh City / Cholon

Many years ago I was browsing a Chicago bookstore for the perfect book to give to my then-lover. I divulge this only because the book I remember having chosen was The Lover by Marguerite Duras. Looking back, I wince a little at the choice. Not because I think any less of the novel, which is still as beautiful and as perfect as it was then, but because I wonder what message I was sending my lover, who probably would have preferred to receive a straightforward rose or box of chocolates.

According to its back cover, The Lover takes place in "prewar Indochina". It is not at all clear which war is meant: in the last century Vietnam fought the Japanese, French, Americans, Cambodians, Chinese, and, of course, itself. But though the enemies changed, the war remained the same, being an attempt to reclaim Vietnam's sovereignty from the world's imperialist powers.

The novel's narrator and protagonist is an adolescent French girl who falls in love with a wealthy Chinese man. Though neither character is named, the girl so resembles Duras herself that I will hereafter call her Marguerite. Marguerite's mother is depressive and her two brothers are rather depressing. One brother becomes a larcenous opium addict, and the other becomes dead. Only her mother condones Marguerite's love affair, and only because the man is rich and Marguerite's family is poor. And though the Chinese man's father is opposed to his son's premarital adventure, the affair drags on, and Marguerite's descriptions of it are rich and passionate, credible and compelling.

Marguerite is equally adept in evoking Indochina's landscape and the tropical mood. And for good reason: the author was born and raised in Indochina and seems to have imbibed its very soul. Even the Chinese man remarks that his lover is a "girl of Indochina", what with her slender wrists, soft skin, and long hair. In a delirious run-on sentence typical of the novel's style, Marguerite writes that "there are no seasons in that part of the world, we have just one season, hot, monotonous, we're in the long hot girdle of the earth, with no spring, no renewal." Compare this to Henry Miller in Tropic of Cancer: "There is no escape," he wrote. "The weather will not change."

A French spring coincides with Indochina's hot season, when everything green turns a tinder-brown. Only the rainy season constitutes a kind of renewal, but what is refreshing to the region's flora is dampening to the human soul. Tropical days and nights are of monotonously equal length all year round; and the sky, as Orwell complained in Burmese Days, is blue without relent. Marguerite says that the very air was blue, palpable: "you could hold it in your hand."

Marguerite broods over the sewer-like Mekong, which "carries everything along, straw hats, forests, burned-out fires, dead birds, dead dogs, drowned tigers and buffaloes, drowned men", and could carry "rocks, a cathedral, a city." Certain place names recur like Pali words in a Buddhist chant: Vinh Long, Sadec, Savanna Khet, Saigon, Hanoi, Chittagong, Cochin China, Tonle Sap, "The Plain of the Birds." Like Graham Greene, Marguerite walks down the rue Catinat and suffers the tumult of Cholon, "the Chinese capital of Indochina", where everyone shouts in alien tongues at tops of lungs.

The Lover was composed over four months in 1984, and it brims with nostalgia for the days when the world was connected by its waterways. The voyage from France to "the colonies" lasted as many days as there are hours in a day, and the ships that made them possible were "like towns". Nature, and natural pace, were not yet outmoded concepts, and death was very much a part of life as well as of travel. Even Marguerite's gloomy mother is able to say that the trips were "the happiest days of her life". Try saying this about today's transoceanic flights, in which people are so many sardines. Time gained can indeed be paradise lost.

Yet even in those somnolent seaborne days, what is now fashioned "globalization" was already well underway. Arriving in French Saigon, says Marguerite, was much like arriving in France. The colonial cities were run through with "the straight tamarind-lined avenues of the French conquest," and there were baguettes and bon appetits aplenty.

The only respect in which The Lover could be said to fail as a novel of Southeast Asia is that its only indigenous character is practically invisible. The woman named Do (with a circumflex over the 'o') is Marguerite's housekeeper, but not much else. It is not even clear where she is from, and we are told only of the forms of her subservience. Marguerite's elder brother tries to rape her, and she seems to spend much of her time sewing "by hand as people haven't sewed by hand for centuries, with hair-fine needles." When Marguerite and her mother share in a mild nervous breakdown, "Do seemed not to have noticed anything."

In The Quiet American, Graham Greene depicts the Annamese woman Phuong as a rather acquiescent, maybe servile, and certainly uneducated semi-entity. This depiction raised the hackles of more than one Asian female academic, and the same kind of academic would probably take issue with Marguerite's depiction of Do. For to characterize Southeast Asians as laconic and retiring, they argue, is to set them up for domination by loud-mouthed and overbearing Western imperialists. Or whatever.

In the restaurant in Thailand where I presently write there are three or more waitresses. Two are doing nothing much; one is knitting; and none of them are scrabbling after much space or attention. They are, in other words, more Phuong and Do than Graham or Marguerite; and I don't see why saying so makes me an imperialist, or their being so makes them victims. A certain reticence may not be very novel-worthy, but why can't it be a virtue?

In his simplistic, fatuous, and potentially dangerous book The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington drew a map. He drew many maps - they are easier to draw than arguments - but one map in particular shows the world carved up into civilizations. Forget for now that Huntington put Bali, an overwhelmingly Hindu island, within Islamic civilization because it happens to be part of Islamic-Chinese-Buddhist-Christian-Malay-Hindu Indonesia; or that he put Thailand in the "free world" despite its long history of monarchical and military rule. More justifiably, Huntington placed Indochina and Thailand within a Buddhist civilization. Too bad, I guess, for the many Buddhists of Japan and China, whom he confines respectively to the civilizations of Japanese and "Sinic", which is code for "Chinese".

What characterizes the Buddhist civilization besides Buddhism? It may be that its countries are those from which so very little is heard. They are quiet and don't throw their weight around. In other words, Do's negligible presence in The Lover reflects the region's negligible presence in world affairs. The Buddhist countries often avoid taking part in, and even seem "not to have noticed" the world's ongoing nervous breakdowns. While Marguerite's family undergoes its lachrymose and cinematic collapse, Do blinks - and endures.

Feminism is most deplorable when it tries to make women, in the name of equality, adopt the vices of men: a lust for power or for power suits. Subaltern studies - or whatever it is - is most deplorable when it tries to make Do, in the name of equality, adopt the vices of Duras: a lust for God or for alcohol. Making Do more like Duras, in other words, does not make her more believable.

As a novel of Southeast Asia The Lover should be ranked among the best, and partially because its themes transcend its Asian setting. As Maxine Hong Kingston suggests in her introduction to the book, Duras "shows us how to see and hear and love and leave Vietnam." And also how to see and hear and love and leave our lovers. This is why The Lover fails as a Valentine's Day gift every bit as much as it succeeds as a work of art.

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Review of Marguerite Duras' The Lover, Pantheon Books, 1998.

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