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Book Review: The Lover by Marguerite Duras

Marguerite Duras’ The Lover is a semi-autobiographical account of her life,  characterised by a disjointed, confessional narrative style. The book concerns an illicit relationship between a young French girl and a Chinese businessman set in Vietnam under French rule in the 1920s. The novel is set right after an uprising by the native Vietnamese against the colonial administration, a critical juncture in the Vietnamese nationalist movement. Duras’ portrayal of an interracial relationship could be construed as a critique of the racial hierarchy imposed by colonial administration, destabilising these constructs. 

In The Lover, race works as a social determinant, with fixed racial identities determining one’s position in the social hierarchy. By depicting an interracial relationship, the novel transgresses these norms and undermines the idea of the immutability of racial constructs.  A heightened awareness of racial identity permeates the novel’s narrative, with numerous references to the Chinese man’s race and his consequent foreignness to the narrator. The characters never refer to each other by their names. Instead, the narrator describes her lover using epithets like ‘the Chinese from Cholon’ and refers to herself as ‘the white girl.’ These terms underscore the way the characters are defined according to colonial categories, as well as the way they view each other. For the pair, race supersedes any other trait as a means of identification, indicative of the pervasiveness of these constructs. 

The relationship between the couple, to an extent, is founded on this difference. While recalling their first encounter, the girl writes: “There’s the difference of race, he’s not white, he has to get the better of it, that’s why he’s trembling.” The transgressive nature of their relationship is established. During this encounter, the Chinese man acknowledges this transgression, stating “it’s very surprising, a white girl on a native bus.” By acknowledging the narrator’s incongruity in an almost exclusively Asian crowd, the man reinforces the idea that the narrator’s race sets her apart. 

According to Jack A Yeager, the norm for colonial literature in Vietnam during the time the novel was published was the con-gai novel, a novel laden with the male coloniser’s exploitation of indigenous women. The historian Nicola Cooper states that for male colonisers, the term con-gai came to represent “an Indochinese version of the traditional and mythologized indigenous woman: the compliant sexual conquest of the dominant white male coloniser.” The Lover, however, subverts the con-gái model since the participants are not in clear positions of power. Although the narrator could be construed as powerful compared to the native Vietnamese because she occupies the position of a coloniser, her financial status distances her from the normative image of white elites. In contrast, while the narrator’s lover is wealthy, his race establishes him as an outsider. 

The girl, thereby, claims a liminal space in Vietnamese society; occupying the interstices of both colonial and indigenous cultural identity.The family’s poverty displaces her from the power and privilege that accompanies their status as colonials. In one passage, the narrator discusses the implications of her family’s poverty, claiming “we were white children, we were ashamed, we sold our furniture but we weren’t hungry, we had a houseboy and we ate. Sometimes, admittedly, we ate garbage, storks, baby crocodiles, but the garbage was cooked and served by a houseboy, and sometimes we refused it, too, we indulged in the luxury of declining to eat.” 

The maintenance of the colonial structure is dependent on the regulation of white women’s sexuality, who, according to literary scholars, were viewed as “guardians of white purity.” This regulation is exemplified in the narrator’s conjuring of the image of the ‘self-betrayed’ women who “don’t do anything, just save themselves up”. The term ‘self betrayed’ suggests that by mindlessly adhering to colonial norms, they are partially responsible for the injustices perpetrated by the system. According to the narrator, the impositions placed on these women eventually prove too much to handle, with some ‘going mad’ and some ‘killing themselves.’ Given the regulation of white women’s sexuality in Indochina, the narrator’s relationship can again be seen as an attempt to release herself from these impositions. 

The Chinese man’s father disapproves of  his relationship with the white girl, believing that it would bring dishonour to his family. He objects to the marriage because of the narrator’s race and lack of financial stability. The Chinese man later marries the daughter of another well-to-do Chinese family. In a sense, this unequivocal rejection of the white girl by the Chinese man’s father could be seen as a form of resistance to the coloniser in Vietnam. At the same time, the fact that the Chinese man eventually marries within his race strengthens the fixity of racial boundaries in colonial Indochina.

Both the narrator’s mother and the Chinese man’s father share an inability to acknowledge and engage with the racial ‘other’, a mentality embedded in the racial and class divisions endemic in colonial Indochina. This inability is exemplified in the narrator’s family’s dinners with the Chinese man, wherein they refuse to acknowledge his presence despite being  dependent on him for food and money. While the family tacitly accepts the free meals, they do not respond to the man’s attempts at conversation, thereby denying him individual worth. The girl claims that her brothers never say a word to him, “as if for them he weren’t solid enough to be perceived, seen or heard.” By portraying the family’s refusal to engage with the Chinese man, despite his obvious proximity, Duras highlights the perversion of human relations wrought by colonial hierarchy. 

The narrator and her lover present an antithesis to this colonial model, united briefly in their subversion of the social mores that prevent their relationship. The narrator, during one of their encounters together, states “because he doesn’t know for himself, I say it for him, in his stead.”. This expression of the pair’s parity underscores the idea that the two are interchangeable, forming two parts of a whole. Through this admission, the narrator erases any distance between the pair, undoing the barriers wrought by colonial hierarchy on the basis of race and class. The pair acknowledges the inevitability of their eventual separation and their respective families’ disapproval of their relationship, and make no attempt to resolve their seemingly inexorable differences. Even while they are faced with condemnation and derision in the public sphere for their supposed wrongdoing, as seen in the narrator’s alienation from other students in her school, the pair themselves do not, at any point, find their relationship a cause of shame. In this way, the pair’s relationship is impervious to the racial tensions and class divide in Vietnamese society. In conclusion, Duras’ The Lover subverts conventions of colonial society. Given the extreme regulation on female sexuality in French colonial Indochina, the narrator’s relationship with a Chinese man threatens the fixity of these ideals. At the same time, the acknowledgement and adherence to colonial norms, as seen in the condemnation and disavowal of the relationship by the narrator and the Chinese man’s families, undermines this transgression. The reader is aware that the couple’s time together is finite due to the various pressures placed on them. The Lover, thereby, presents the ambiguities associated with the colonial paradigm, both subverting colonial norms as well as portraying the rigidity of the divisions perpetuated by the system.

 Yashasvini Gupta is a first year undergraduate student at Ashoka University, pursuing a major in Economics and a minor in Literature.

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