Something dark and deeply unsettling simmers angrily beneath the surface of this narrative. This 'something'
becomes so potent a force, arousing fear and feelings of disgust in the reader, that one is often tempted to abandon reading and save oneself from all the unpleasantness Duras shoves right in the reader's face without inhibitions.'The Lover'
is a brutally honest attempt at reconciliation with the past, irrespective of how much hurt and damage it may have caused. It is a tale of Marguerite Duras' childhood years spent in what is modern day Vietnam and reads almost like a memoir or piece of non-fiction at times.
The narrator of The Lover
is sometimes a young girl of 15, sometimes a woman, sometimes a mere child, sometimes an old lady living in France as an established novelist and sometimes a girl caught in a painful identity crisis. Duras' erratic narration and tendency to flip back and forth between the past and present and her personal contemplations (slightly in a Slaughterhouse-Five
ish way) ensure that the reader occasionally loses the thread connecting all the events. But even so the story resonates strongly with the one reading and and one can barely prevent a disturbing image of human suffering from being burned into their mind.
The unnamed narrator's voice is strangely full of apathy and indifference. It almost lacks a clear character. There are times when the resentment in this young girl reaches a fever pitch and thrashes about restlessly for an outlet into the realm of reality. But in the very next moment, it reduces in intensity and assumes its former state of equanimity. It is as if she is torn between feelings of revulsion and longing and cannot pick one over the other. Her existence itself seems precariously balanced on the predominant emotions of hatred and love that she feels for the people closest to her.
She begins a turbulent love affair with a much older, rich Chinese man and this, in turn, becomes both a boon and a bane for her. He becomes her safe haven from the cruelties of life and the emotional and physical abuse she silently suffers at the hands of her own family members. But then, he also becomes the cause of her social stigma and shame - thus he is her tormentor and her savior at the same time.
I see the war as like him, spreading everywhere, breaking in everywhere, stealing, imprisoning, always there, merged and mingled with everything, present in the body, in the mind, awake and asleep, all the time, a prey to the intoxicating passion of occupying that delightful territory, a child's body, the bodies of those less strong, of conquered peoples. Because evil is there, at the gates, against the skin.
Initially it is hinted that the young girl is cold and indifferent towards her lover and possibly does not reciprocate his feelings. But at the end of the affair, she comes to the realization that her love for him may have been genuine after all.
A perpetual state of chaos seems to prevail inside the adolescent protagonist's head and this almost becomes an accurate reflection of the tumultuous times of a colonized, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic Indo-China (present Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) - a war-ravaged land whose fortunes remained at the mercy of various colonial masters for decades.
Even though a doomed romance forms the main subject matter of this book, what often overshadows its acutely depressing tones, is the looming presence of Indo-China. Duras' love for this land shines through the haze of her traumatic years.
Because interspersed between the disturbing imagery, there are beautiful descriptions of Cholon, the Chinese capital of French Indo-China, bustling with life and activity, the river Mekong and the morning ferry carrying its passengers across to Saigon, where the young girl goes to boarding school.
Thus it is heartening to see that Vietnam is not reduced to the status of a mere backdrop in a tale of personal miseries but comes alive in its state of silent agony, in Duras' sparse but beautiful prose. Its sights and sounds and smells and landscapes become an integral part of this semi autobiographical novella and add a distinct character to it.
"The bed is separated from the city by those slatted shutters, that cotton blind. There's nothing solid separating us from other people. They don't know of our existence. We glimpse something of theirs, the sum of their voices, of their movements, like the intermittent hoot of a siren, mournful, dim.
Whiffs of burnt sugar drift into the room, smell of roasted peanuts, Chinese soups, roast meat, herbs, jasmine, dust, incense, charcoal fires, they carry fire about in baskets here, it's sold in the street, the smell of the city is the smell of the villages upcountry, of the forest."
does not make my list of all-time-favorites and nor may it merit a re-reading. But even then it rightly deserves the 4 stars I awarded it, simply because it succeeds in painting a moving picture of ambivalent relationships, that transcends the boundaries of race or ethnicity and appeals to the universal human spirit.