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Tuesday 30 September 2014

Review: Marguerite Duras, L'Amant de la Chine du Nord

" - And if there is no unhappiness? 

- Then everything will be forgotten "

In 1984, Marguerite Duras published L'Amant - a lyrical, beautifully crafted short autobiographical novel about a teenager's love affair with a man in his twenties. The book was made into a film, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, which Duras disliked and it is sometimes said that she wrote this longer, second book - this second version of L'Amant - to show how the story should be filmed. It is indeed written as a series of filmically conceived scenes, sometimes with explicit notes of guidance about how they should be treated for cinema and it appeared in the same year (1991) as the film.

But there was another motive, which she acknowledges. In 1990, Duras learnt that her first lover was dead - had died some years before - and she set to work on this book. It is her mourning for her lover that is recorded here. And the emotional climax comes in a short passage at page 214 where the young Duras - just turned fifteen - urges her Chinese lover to make sure that one day he tells their story to his Chinese wife-to-be, complete with all the names, all the places, all the place names. Why to his wife? Because her unhappiness will allow her to understand the story. 

" - Et s'il n'y a pas de douleur? - Alors tout sera oubliƩ" (page 214)

The story is in the great tradition of literature which knots together love and transgression. Like Romeo and Juliet,  Duras and her lover are breaking the rules, three rules in fact: she is under-age; she is white in French Indo-China and he is Chinese. She is poor and he is rich.

There will be mean spirited readers who will see her teenage infatuation for the Chinese man as an act of desperation. A fatherless child in a dysfunctional family; a brutal older teenage brother already addicted to opium; a younger brother who she both protects from the older and with whom at the same time she has an incestuous relationship. A mother who is not coping. There will be readers who would have sent the man to prison for a long time - they have such good sex - and the girl to the tender mercies of state care.

But the story she tells is about a child who is not desperate but courageous - or, at least, developing through acts of defiance what will become the courage of later life. 

Overarching everything is an enormous tenderness in her depiction of her characters - even the bit players - and their relationships. Quite often, she brings this out by describing how couples - temporary couples in some cases - dance with each other. These scenes are a gift to the film maker. 

(I am reminded of a story told me by a friend who, looking through a lit college window late one evening, chanced upon a very elderly Rudolf  Laban dancing alone with his partner, Lisa Ullmann).

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