by Pamela Payne
French writer Marguerite Duras spent some of her childhood in Sa Dec, a sprawling busy town in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. Here she set much of her autobiographical novel, The Lover. Published in France in 1984 and in its first English translation in 1985, The Lover has since been translated into more than forty languages. In its year of publication it won France’s most prestigious literary award, Prix Goncourt.
In Sa Dec director Jean-Jaques Annaud shot much of his 1992 film, The Lover with Jane March as the waif-like French fifteen year old with the devastating sense of style and Tony Leung as her rich, elegant Chinese lover.
Aside from the fact that the French have long departed, not a lot has changed in Sa Dec since Duras’ day. Warehouses, mostly old Chinese shop-houses, bulge with merchandise. Ancient river boats load and unload at the wharves built almost to the shop doors. A steady stream of porters lumps sacks and boxes into the jumble of these crammed premises.
Both the school where Duras’ mother taught and the small house behind it where the family must have lived still stand. But there are no commemorative plaques nor proud signs pointing the way to the one time home of a famous daughter. “Marg Rite?” repeats the local police captain. He follows my gaze to the house across the river, nods vaguely. It’s undoubtedly not the first time he’s been asked but he can’t imagine why Westerners are interested in the town’s primary school.
In a sense, it’s appropriate that the Vietnamese don’t make a fuss of Duras. In her writing there’s no sentiment, nor even cursory affection, for Sa Dec, nor for any of her childhood homes in Indochina. There’s not the least nostalgia as she writes in The Lover for “those incredible places, always temporary, ugly beyond expression, places to flee from, in which my mother would camp ..”
Before her eighteenth birthday, Duras left Indochina for France. From the age of 28 when she wrote her first novel, Les Impudents, until her death in 1996 at the age of 82, she published prolifically, effortlessly traversing literary genre novels, essays, plays, film scripts, journalism, autobiography. But only three works are wholly rooted in Indochina, The Sea Wall (1950), The Lover and, in 1991, a less successful reworking of The Lover, the The North China Lover.
At Sa Dec the Mekong River runs very strongly, as it does everywhere in the Delta. Rafts of water hyacinth sail by on their way to the South China Sea:
My mother sometimes tells me that never in my whole life shall I ever again see rivers as beautiful and big and wild as these, the Mekong and its tributaries going down to the sea, the great regions of water soon to disappear into the caves of the ocean. In the surrounding flatness stretching as far as the eye can see, the rivers flow as if the earth sloped downwards. – The Lover
It’s dauntingly hot, a thick, damp heat. The Vietnamese don’t seem to notice the temperature. Even those engaged in the heaviest work, of lugging market produce or rowing laden boats across the river, never seem to sweat. But for Europeans, the climate is punishing. In a market alcove I buy iced water from an enormous woman in a faded cotton shift. Why have I come to the Mekong Delta? When will I go back to Ho Chi Minh City? She roars with laughter. Her chins wobble; she teeters back and forward. She points to the mucky market floor, slaps her body vigorously. With my rudimentary knowledge of the Vietnamese language, I can’t decipher everything she’s saying but I understand the gist of it: everywhere mud and mosquitoes. She thumps my arms and makes other gestures of disbelief. Mud and mosquitoes I hear her singing as I leave the market. I understand what Duras meant when she called this place “the hot girdle of the earth, with no spring, no renewal.”
Marguerite Duras was born at Gia Dinh, a Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) suburb, on April 4, 1914. Both her parents were teachers, lured to Vietnam, from their native France, by dreams of romance and fortune. Her father, a mathematics teacher, carved out an apparently successful career in Tonkin (North Vietnam), Cochin-China (South Vietnam) and in Cambodia. Certainly the house where they lived in Phnom Penh, a “fine house over looking the Mekong, once the palace of the king of Cambodia”, was immeasurably grander than their many homes after his death, when poverty became “the ruling principle” of their lives.
When her desperately ill father was repatriated to France in 1919, where he died of amoebic dysentery, her mother chose to stay in Indochina with her three children: the four year old Marguerite and two older sons.
Duras paints her mother as an unhappy, driven woman. She writes of her dejection, moodiness that would tilt into madness. She writes of her courage and stubborn battle to survive, her constant lawsuits against the officials; lawsuits that she never won because she didn’t know how to conduct them properly:
My mother, my love, her incredible ungainliness, with her cotton stockings darned by Do; I’m ashamed of her in the street outside the school, when she drives up to the school in her old Citroen B12 everyone looks, but she, she doesn’t notice anything, ever, she ought to be locked up, beaten, killed
Her mother was always shifting house on impulse. There were houses in Cambodia, Vinh Long, Sa Dec, and Saigon. There may have been more. She bought a house in Hanoi that they never lived in. She eked out a living as a school teacher, played the piano for a time at a local cinema. She also tried her hand at farming, most disastrously on the concession she took up in Cambodia. This flood doomed Cambodian concession, and became the canvas for Duras’ early novel, The Sea Wall. The mother in The Sea Wall is Duras’ own mother, the mother of The Lover, the mother who influenced so much of her life and her writing. From this mother Duras inherited her ferocious individuality, her obstinacy, her passion for life, and the despair that was manifest in alcoholism. “It was the madness of my mother that made me write”, she once said.
Duras writes with no happiness of her family life in Vietnam. “It’s a family of stone, petrified so deeply it’s impenetrable.” She writes of her mother’s fierce love for her elder brother; of wanting to punish her mother for “loving him so much, so badly”. This elder brother, violent and lawless, is a malevolent presence in her writing. “His first impulse is always to kill, to wipe out, to hold sway over life, to scorn, to hunt, to make suffer. ” There was never either redemption or reconciliation between Duras and this brother,.
But her love for her other brother, gentle and fearful Paolo, was unequivocal. “The love I feel for him remains an unfathomable mystery to me.” When Duras left Vietnam, in 1931, Paolo stayed behind. She never saw him again before he died during the Japanese occupation in 1942. Like the elder brother, Paolo, in all kinds of guises, appears in her writing. He’s still there and she still mourns him in No More, a collection of final work published posthumously. Her memories of Paolo are merged with the character of a young British pilot shot down over Japan in the last days of the war. “I cannot write about him anymore. And I’m writing, as you see, I’m writing none the less.”
Although it was the chance of visiting Duras’ childhood home that lured me to Sa Dec, I realize when I’ve been there for a few days that seeing the place where she lived is not nearly as important as experiencing Duras’ world. To my tourist eyes, it’s exotic, exciting. I happily slog through the mud, beat off the mosquitoes, perch on a kindergarten sized stool in the slush to eat my bowl of chili-hot noodle soup, ignore the fury of flies, resign myself to the heat. But I don’t have to live here from one interminable year to the next. Being here, I understand the sense of exile, the “frightful loneliness” that Duras writes about. I have some perception of what she means when she talks of life “stranded amid checkered stretches of rice, fear, madness, fever and oblivion”.
Even in the cities, colonial life was to be tolerated rather than enjoyed:
I look at the (French) women in the streets of Saigon, and up-country. Some of them are very beautiful, very white. They don’t do anything, just save themselves up, save themselves for Europe. They wait, these women. In the shade of their villas, they look at themselves for later on, they dream of romance. Some of them go mad. Some are deserted for a young maid. Some kill themselves.
The young Duras was not about to accept the fate of these bored, dislocated colonial women. It was taken for granted that, when she finished secondary school as a boarder in Saigon, she would make the twenty-four day voyage back to France to begin university. Every piastra her mother could scrimp was hoarded for the journey. At the Sorbonne she initially followed her mother’s advice, and began a degree in mathematics, but later switched to political science and law. Although her mother eventually returned to Saigon where she opened a French language school, the Nouvelle Ecole Francaise, Duras never returned, not even in later life for a brief visit. Why would she?
At school she was ostracized: the other French pupils were forbidden to speak to the girl who was brought to school every morning in her Chinese lover’s black limousine, who stayed out half the night, who treated the boarding school as a hotel. In Sa Dec she was the object of gossip, not only because of her precocious clothes and demeanor but because of her family’s poverty and her brother’s unruliness. The town dubbed them “a family of white layabouts”. They were outsiders. In Woman to Woman Duras wrote, “I dragged along in life saying: I have no native country ” Nevertheless, although she expressed no fondness for these years in Vietnam, she acknowledges their perverse legacy:
I’m still part of the family, it’s there I live, to the exclusion of everything else. It’s in its aridity, its terrible harshness, its malignance, that I’m most deeply sure of myself, at the heart of my essential certainty, the certainty that later on I’ll be a writer.”
What kind of writer might Duras have become had she grown up in a comfortable, conventional family in the suburbs of Paris?
Writing became her life, as vital, she once said, as breathing. In essays and interviews Duras wrote much about the process and purpose of writing, the urgency and consuming passion of writing, the disaster and devastation of writing. “We do not have life, I never had life. Crire, that is my life.”
She also wrote frankly about her alcoholism. In Practicalities (1990) she confesses that she was an alcoholic from the moment she took her first drink:
“When a woman drinks it’s as if an animal were drinking, or a child. Alcoholism is scandalous in woman, and a female alcoholic is rare, a serious matter. It’s a slur on the divine in our nature. I realized the scandal I was causing around me. But in my day, in order to have the strength to confront it publicly – for example, to go into a bar on one’s own at night – you needed to have had something to drink already.”
But, while alcohol shadowed her life, particularly her later years, she remained productive. She published her last book It is All, in 1995, the year before her death. And still she continued with the writing that was collected in No More. Also, until almost the end of her life, her television appearances and presence in the daily press were virtually unabated.
At one point, in 1982, she underwent treatment for alcoholism. Yann Andrea Steiner, the much younger (by 38 years) man with whom she lived from 1980 until her death, convinced her to go to the American Hospital of Paris for treatment. But from his descriptions of her hallucinatory behavior after her discharge, the treatment seems to not to have had any radical or lasting effect.
I bargain with a boat man to take me across the river to the school and house. Like most French colonial villas, the school is fairly run down. Built tall and tightly shuttered against the tropical sun, these villas often have a prim, withdrawn appearance. Unless they are built close to one another, they seem oddly alien against the surrounding timber and thatch huts, water coconut, areca palms and the leathery green of bananas. This one is no exception.
Three little girls in school uniform greet me. Marguerite who? These children have no doubt that I have traveled especially to see their school. They shepherd me around the grounds; they show me all their favorite haunts and prattle on to me, confident and very likable nine year olds. Lessons are over for the afternoon and the building is shut. I walk around it, peer into a downstairs window, at grimy blackboards and battered desks. Has the classroom furniture been upgraded since the late 1920s when Duras’ mother, Mm Donnadieu, taught here? (Duras was a pseudonym taken from the French town where her father had owned property).
What might once have been an extensive garden is now flattened by legions of small feet into the nondescript surface of a school yard. Behind the main building is a small house. Outside it, women are busy chopping vegetables, stirring pots on a charcoal fire, nursing babies, mending, combing one another’s hair for lice. These women are friendly but I can’t see past the door of the house and I have no way of explaining to them why I would like to pry. This is, though, surely the “little house”, not much more than a shack, that Duras says was provided with her mother’s job.
In The Lover Duras’ sense of alienation, of difference is palpable “the white girl on the native bus.” Not many French colonials would have traveled by native bus. Indeed, even today in Vietnam, particularly this far down in the Mekong Delta, I’m a lone European traveler on local transport. There are other tourists. But they whiz through town on air-conditioned coaches, as efficiently shielded from the Vietnamese world as were most colonials. Sa Dec is a backwater, perhaps more so today than when the French administered it. My hotel truthfully calls itself the best in town: it’s the only hotel in town.
But, although the young Duras traveled within that native world, in The Lover she expresses no curiosity about it, and certainly no urge to become part of it. While she was ashamed of the family’s poverty, she doesn’t question the taken-for-granted superiority of the white colonists. The adult Duras might acknowledge the irony of the white position, but not so the girl:
Children like little old men because of chronic hunger, yes. But us, no, we weren’t hungry. 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 served by a houseboy, and sometimes we refused it, too, we indulged in the luxury of declining to eat.
The sense of difference and of unquestioned white advantage is at the heart of the relationship between the young girl and her Chinese lover:
” it’s taken for granted I don’t love him, that I’m with him for the money, that I can’t love him, it’s impossible, that he could take any sort of treatment from me and still go on loving me. This is because he’s a Chinese, because he’s not a white man.”
But what the girl’s mother and brothers could never comprehend is that their sense of white superiority is countered by the Chinese man, and particularly by his proud, rigid father who would never let him marry ” the little white whore from Sa Dec” This is rich territory. It’s not surprising that love complicated by racial difference is a theme in Duras’ writing. The central conflict of her 1959 film script for director Alain Resnais, Hiroshima mon amour, for example, is the love between a French woman and a Japanese man. Nor is it surprising, given her childhood and teenage experience, that virtually all her sympathetic characters exist on the edges of society: the disenfranchised, the poor, the powerless, migrants, the very old and the very young, transgressors and victims. Vietnam as a geographical location rarely appears in her writing. (Place and plot are never, though, as important to her as space, time, the tensions and nuances of language, the inner lives of her characters.) But her formative experiences there, both as a French girl in an alien culture and as a daughter in a fraught, poor and mostly unhappy family, vitally influenced the writer and the woman she became.
Back on the other side of the river I sit under a battered market umbrella drinking strong black coffee and eating an oven-warm baguette two happy legacies of French occupation. The river is busy. Boat after boat pulls into the bank. Vietnamese with their bundles and baskets, their loads of sugar cane, their poultry and their pigs clamber up the river bank. In their midst, I imagine the teenaged girl of The Lover. There she is, in her threadbare dress of sepia colored silk and her high heeled gold lame sandals decorated with little diamante flowers. Beneath the flat brim of her brownish-pink fedora with a broad black ribbon, she assesses her world.
Pamela Payne is a university teacher and freelance journalist who, since mid-1999, has been traveling in South East Asia.