The story of my life doesn’t exist. Does not exist. There’s never any center to it. No path, no line. There are great spaces where you pretend there used to be someone, but it’s not true, there was no one.
The Lover is one of those books that has been enthusiastically recommended to me by many readers, whenever the topic of women in translation comes up.
Set in Saigon, in late 1920s French Colonial Vietnam, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, translated from the French by Barbara Bray, is a sensual, autobiographical story about an adolescent French girl’s passionate affair with an older, wealthy Chinese man, and a deeply moving exploration of desire, poverty, class, and colonialism.
This short novella is written in sparse, yet lyrical prose, from the point of view of an older woman reflecting on her youth. This literary device, together with the non-linear narrative that jumps in time from past to present, gives the book a disorienting, dreamlike quality, and, even though the story focuses on a doomed love affair, Duras manages to vividly evoke the setting of Saigon that feels like an integral part of the story.
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.
At the age of fifteen, Marguerite meets a Chinese businessman in his late twenties, and embarks on a passionate relationship with him. Her family is very poor. Her widowed, mentally ill mother spends all the money she can get on her older brother, a selfish and abusive young man who constantly gets into trouble. We see that the mother silently condones the relationship between her daughter and the Chinese businessman because he is very generous, and they are in desperate need of money. However, despite their penniless state, the family members still cling to their sense of superiority over the Chinese and Vietnamese just because of their skin colour.
At the same time, despite his obsession with the “little white girl”, the Chinese lover is perfectly aware that his father will never let him stay with her because he wants him to marry the daughter of another wealthy Chinese family. He is torn between his infatuation with this young girl and his family obligation. It seems that what connects these two lovers is a yearning for freedom and true fulfilment. They both essentially want to loose themselves in passion in order to escape, for even just a brief moment, from the reality of their lives.
Overall, this novella totally lived up to my expectations, and I can see why so many people name this as one of their favourite books. It’s a beautifully written and deeply affecting story that I’m definitely going to revisit sometime in the future.
[…] she thought of the man from Cholon and suddenly she wasn’t sure she hadn’t loved him with a love she hadn’t seen because it had lost itself in the affair like water in sand and she rediscovered it only now, through this moment of music flung across the sea.