Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

Blurring the Boundaries? The Sense of Time and Place in Marguerite Duras' L'Amant

Anne-Marie Cattan Medcalf

This paper is mainly concerned with the use of literature in history and more specifically that of European women's novels in colonial social history. It will take Marguerite Duras' novel L'Amant (The Lover) as a case study and examine it in conjunction with Barrage contre le Pacifique (The Sea Wall) and L'Amant de la Chine du Nord. [1]

L'Amant was to a certain extent produced and generally received as part of a postcolonial, postmodernist and feminist stream of thought mediated by the events of World War II. [2] My contention here is that its author, born in colonial Vietnam, should also be acknowledged as belonging to a long lineage of women colonial writers whose discourse was an ambiguous one, being at the same time, in the words of Sara Mills, "proto-feminist and anti-feminist, colonial and anti-colonial" [3] and, I would add, challenging and partaking in the Orientalist discourse.

This duality illustrates the fact that within the colonial context European women are structurally caught between the determinants of gender, race and class. As women, especially in the period considered, they hold a subordinate social and political status to that of the men of whom they are the legal dependants. As white women, they are, either by association or through their paid or unpaid activities and work, part of the coloniser's world from which they derive very specific privileges. Class position places them further from or closer to the colonized economically, although not necessarily politically or socially. It must be noted, however, that it is only the extent and not the existence of these privileges which varies according to class. In this sense race can be said to be ultimately determinant. This combination, nonetheless, can give their experiences and their writing an ambiguous twist which in the case of second generation colonials like Duras is compounded by a mixed cultural background acquired in their childhood.

To ignore this is to perpetuate the view classically put forward that women were marginal to a process of colonization seen, to use Said's words, as "an exclusively male province." [4] It allows them to be defined as an undifferentiated mass through negative tropes describing them as bored, vain, inactive and neurotic. [5] But it also offers the way for feminist literary critique to analyse women's colonial texts as stemming from a dominated group. As a result, their Orientalist tendencies are overlooked even when a link is established between these texts and the historical and political context in which they have been written. [6]

To partake solely of one or the other mode of analysis, is, I would contend, to trivialise women's roles, to dismiss them as actors in the public domain and to deny them their multiplicity and their contradictions. As far as colonial history and L'Amant are concerned, the usefulness of Duras' work as an example of the structural duality of colonial women's position is lost and its validity as a source for women's social history overlooked.

L'Amant, published in 1984 is chronologically the second book of the three considered here. Barrage contre le Pacifique was first published in French, four years before the end of the French adventure in Indochina and when Duras was still a member of the French Communist Party. It was strongly inspired by the American novelists of the time and was openly anti-colonialist. L'Amant de la Chine du Nord was published in 1991 as a counter script to that written for J. J. Annaud's film L'Amant and to which she objected. Each book is a retelling of the same story thematically centred around the domestic-public distinction. They are concerned with Marguerite Duras' family history. They tell of the oppressed position she shares with a totally defenceless brother under the domination of an older brother and a mother verging on madness. But they also tell of a relationship she experienced around the age of fifteen with a Chinese man about ten years older and far wealthier than she. The other common element between these three books is that of time and place: Saigon and the Mekong delta region in the 1930s. At that time, the colonial system in Vietnam, still seemingly flourishing, was starting to crack at the seams. [7] It was a period of "uncertainty" and "anxiety," [8] a period of political and social crisis translated into peasant uprisings on a scale previously unknown, of industrial strikes and of militant student hostility in the schools. This was parallelled on the colonizer's side by harsh repression and by the realization, in the words of the ex Governor-General of Indochina, Albert Sarrault, that "the crisis of colonization" had started in earnest. [9]

At home the older brother rules ruthlessly in conjunction with the mother who condones his actions and helps him. He has never held a job in his life and is an opium addict [10] - a recurrent theme in Indochinese colonial literature. [11] Extremely violent, he steals from his mother and from the servants to feed his addiction and extract as much as he can from the Chinese lover. In his racism, he refuses to talk to him, only communicating his demands through the little sister. [12] In many ways he is what Albert Memmi calls the "colonizer who accepts." [13] He erects and defends at all cost total social boundaries between himself and the colonized in order to preserve his dominating position and justify his usurpation of the land and institutions of the country. Although the political events of the time are not portrayed as such in the book, both the brother and the violence he exercises at home mirror the extractive, exclusive and repressive policies of the colonial administration as well as its fear of being overcome and its self-destructive character.

The boundaries erected by the colonial powers were not, however, totally watertight. The binary divide between colonized and colonizer, oppressor and oppressed starts jarring as soon as we turn to the character of the mother. As a teacher paid by the French government, she is one of the political and cultural brokers of this government's attempt to impose the colonizer's culture on the colonized. As the owner of a plantation holding, she participates in the large scale dispossession of the small Vietnamese peasants. Within the family, she is the right and repressive arm of her son whom she adores, albeit often in an effort to pre-empt his extreme violence. [14] Her behaviour towards the Chinese lover, at least in the two first books is - like the son's - openly racist and exploitative. [15]

However, the mother is also known to hate the French government's dismal education policies and to help her students as much as she can. [16] Because she refused to bribe the French land titles officials, the holding she has obtained is unusable. In spite of the walls she erects year after year against the Ocean with the help of the neighbouring peasants, the land is flooded annually by the sea and its crops are doomed to fail. [17] It is interesting to note here that at the height of her fight against the elements and while siding with the peasants against the colonial administration, she continues to express the very colonial idea of taming the elements and enlightening the colonized, [18] in other words, the French idea of the mission civilisatrice. As a result of her struggle and of her running legal battle to be refunded, she is reduced to poverty and alienated from the colonial authories. This and the battle to keep her elder son's behaviour at bay increase her "deep discouragement about living" and a "pure despair" [19] redefined as madness.

In Memmi's terms, the mother is the "colonizer who refuses" the colonial system without really crossing the boundaries between colonized and colonizers. [20] Her views on the colonial government certainly reflect the growing anti-colonialist feelings of a section of the French society, even in the colony, at the time. [21] Her behaviour, however, is fraught with ambiguity, caught as she is between her insight into the nature of colonialism, and her own treatment of the colonized. At the same time, she is undoubtedly dominated by her son and her alternate beatings and cajoling of her daughter reflect her own self hatred and self pity. [22]

Within the family, the daughter-narrator has no say. It is with the implicit approval and even encouragement of the brother and the mother that she virtually prostitutes herself to the Chinese lover. [23] Extracting money from him is for the mother a solution to the family's poverty and is in line with the brother's character. Classically, however, her physical relation with the Chinese lover is never openly acknowledged, though no less accepted by her family. On the contrary she is made the scapegoat for a situation largely created by her brother and her mother, and her relationship with him, seen as polluting, occasions her the worst mistreatment described in the book. 24] In prostituting herself to him she has indeed reversed the usual and acceptable sexual boundary crossing within the colony by becoming the congai, the concubine of the colonized. She is publicly seen as the inferior in a relationship the Chinese lover's own father rejects both on racial and class grounds. [25] Someone in his position does not accept a marriage with a "little white prostitute." [26] Here it is interesting to remember that the Chinese were for ten centuries the first colonisers of Vietnam.

For all this, the daughter is also solidly part of the coloniser's world and not only by association with her family. Although, poverty obliging, she stays in a boarding house for poor métisses (of mixed race) and Vietnamese girls where she is one of only two whites, she is allowed to come and go as she pleases. She attends a secondary school reserved for French citizens before being sent to university in France, a very rare opportunity for the Vietnamese people.27 In the bus she sits with the Europeans and although she experiences hunger, she never experiences famine, which was a common occurrence at the time amongst the Vietnamese. [28]

Even in prostituting herself to the Chinese lover, she mostly dominates a relationship where she is masculinized and he feminized both socially and sexually. During their first encounter, he is the one who is afraid and from then on lives in fear of being rejected by her. He does not have, she says, "the strength to love beyond his fright." 29] He is described as "skinny, without strength or muscle, hairless and without virility other than that of his sex." [30] While her female/sexual property side is symbolized by the lamé shoes she constantly wears, her masculinization is symbolized by the felt hat she also wears at all times. Although she claims that "No woman, no young girl would wear such a man's felt hat in this colony and in those days," [31] women were seen carrying guns or dressed in men's clothes, felt included, from even earlier in the piece. [32] We have here in fact a classical example of the woman coloniser who to be adopted as such, masculinizes herself. As Audre Lorde would put it, she has adopted "the master's tools," [33] while the colonised is predictably feminized. In many ways, then, she is fulfilling the oriental "sexual promise" described by Said. [34] It is interesting to note here that although her anticolonial feelings are made perfectly clear in Le Barrage, she fails in this book to acknowledge the lover either as Chinese or as a real lover as she does in L'Amant. It is only in the third one, L'Amant de la Chine du Nord, written at a time of racist, ultra-nationalist resurgence, that she lets her love for him explicitly pervade the book.

Marguerite Duras' discourse is itself an ambiguous one. While her social and political commentary is an anticolonial and anti-racist one, her perceptions are definitely tainted with the colonizer's tropes. She fears the climate, claiming that in the tropics there is only one season, although she does describe the dry and wet seasons within the same book. [35] She sees the Mekong, as a threatening river of death, [36] oblivious of the fact that it is also a giver of life. For her, the lover's flat in Cholon is a place of distress and Cholon itself is described with terms relevant to the wild forest [37] while the Cholon crowd is said to look "flea-ridden like abandoned dogs." [38] Fear of and alienation from the environment, distanciation, feminization, naturalization of the colonized: several decades onward the colonial discourse is still close to the postcolonial surface.

As a poor woman in colonial Vietnam then, the narrator is disempowered and like the colonized mimics the male colonizer, here through her masculinization and some elements of her discourse. However, through her objective social and racial position, she is the colonizer. This colonizer is not only a "colonizer who refuses" but one who ambivalently "crosses over." [39] On the cultural side, she speaks Vietnamese like a native speaker, and has spent her childhood with Vietnamese people. [40] There is also in L'Amant a strong sense of a physical crossing over, since the lover, the climate, the food, the rain water she washes with, the loose cotton and silk clothes she wears have fashioned her figure, hair and perhaps more significantly her skin to the point that, for him, the lover, "she has become a young woman of this country, Indochina." [41] Indeed she feels the country is more truly hers than unknown metropolitan France will ever be. Finally, because of her affair with the Chinese lover, she is ostracised by the colonial society but is never accepted by the colonized. It is as if she had suddenly lost her white skin without having found another one: she will never be accepted by the other's family.

In this sense, she has become as marginal as the lover, a member of a trading minority used as an economic intermediary by the colonial administration. From this position, his father derives significant benefits such as the building and exploitation of the lucrative Cholon compartiments, unhealthy and crowded housing for "the natives." [42] This has allowed the son to emulate the colonizer through his French education, his forced Parisian accent, his expensive cars and suits and, now, through the ultimate boundary crossing, his sexual encounter with the coloniser women. [43]

According to Homi Bhabha [44] this process of identification is not only encouraged, but is also actively and narcissistically initiated by the colonizer because it is easier to control an other who is recognizable in terms of the dominant colonial paradigm. In Lorde's words, the colonized then find themselves preoccupied with "the master's concerns." [45] The colonizers, however, will not allow this identification to go further than is necessary for their benefit. The door, then, will slam as the threshold is about to be crossed. The Chinese financial expansion was always tightly controlled and contained by the French and the little white girl will leave her lover behind. He is no longer quite a Chinese either, and in fact this is their main point of encounter: because they have attempted to blur the colonial boundaries, they are no longer totally accepted by, or at home with, either party. They have become social half-castes.

As I have mentioned earlier, critics have generally approached L'Amant as a feminist and postmodernist novel. It is not my purpose either to analyse the book in these terms or to deny the importance of such a perspective. Of interest here are the ways in which they have approached the problem of historical time and place within this book. Some, like the historian, Milton Osborne, dismiss L'Amant as a text divorced from its historial setting:

. . . L'Amant lacks a sense of place despite the exotic settings - or perhaps because of them, remembering the tendency of most French novelists on Indochina to downplay the indigenous. In any case, a sense of place is not Duras' intention. In her "Indochinese" novels, she is concerned with internals, with the psychology of individuals almost regardless of historical time or physical place. [46]

Others have a clearer perception of the weaving of autobiography and history onto a colonial background. However, either the dominated or the dominating position of the heroine are emphasized, but not both. [47] The colonial background in Duras' work is either dismissed as exotic or reinterpreted to allow the critic to address only the superimposed transposition of the writer's experiences in the second World War. Kristeva, for example, is perhaps the closest to the mark, emphasizing as she does, that the sense of madness, pain and death pervading the book and Duras' work in general has its source in "the collapse of economic, political and legal structures." [48] For her, however, this collapse is only that brought about by the second World War and its atrocities. While Kristeva is aware of the text's social commentary on colonialism which she calls "social and geographic realism," she quickly dismisses it as "local colour" and "distant history." [49] Although she sees its "feminine jouissance" as anchored in the context of an "erotic exoticism," [50] she stops short of confronting this description as an example of Orientalist discourse grounded in a colonial perspective

Refusal to see the book as an example of the structural ambiguity of the colonial woman's position and as both a testimony and an indictment of colonial Indochina is, I believe, symbolised by the recurrent use of the word "exotic" to characterize its setting. As a result, this setting is kept at a distance not only from us, but from the narrator, and its importance is devalued. Exotic literature pertains mainly to travel and discovery and, to follow Patrick Laude's analysis, to the search for the cultural shock of a distant Otherness whose primary role is to help one "break with a known universe" [51] reconstructed by opposition to a romanticized distant one. It is solidly grounded in the perspective of that known universe, here the Occident, and is preoccupied with showing distances and differences. In contrast, colonial literature pertains to those "who stay" and it is only partially anchored in the discourse of the metropolis. It may be, and in fact is, often fraught with exoticism and pervaded, as Louis Malleret put it long ago, with "the doctrines of colonial domination." [52] It is primarily concerned, however, whether purposely or not, with the description of the "here and now" of the colony seen from within the colonial society. [53] This is indeed what Duras' book does concern itself with: her Indochina is not a distant land used as a romantic device, but a place experienced at first hand with its relationships and contradictions, its violence stemming from fear and its boundaries soon to be assaulted.

Murdoch University

With thanks to Carol Warren, Jocelyn Grace, Danielle Tucat and Suzanne Cattan.


1 Barrage contre le Pacifique (Paris: Gallimard, 1950); L'Amant (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1984); L'Amant de la Chine du Nord, (Paris: Gallimard, 1990). In this paper, references will be made to the French editions of these books. Translations of all quotes are mine.

2 Julia Kristeva "The Pain and Sorrow in the Modern World: The Works of Marguerite Duras", PMLA 102: 2 (1987); Raylene Ramsay, "Autobiographical Fictions: Duras, Sarraute, Simon, Robbe-Grillet: Re-writing History, Story, Self," The International Fiction Review 18:1 (1991); Margaret Sankey, "Time and Autobiography in L'Amant by Marguerite Duras," Australian Journal of French Studies, 25:1 (1988).

3 Sara Mills, Discourses of Difference: An analysis of Women Travel Writing and Colonialism (London: Routlege, 1991).

4 Edward Said, Orientalism (London : Penguin Books, 1978) 207.

5 Clotilde Chivas-Barron, La femme française aux colonies (Paris: Larose, 1929) 9-10,52; Milton Osborne, "Fear and Fascination in the Tropics : A Reader's Guide to French Fiction in Indochina," Wisconsin Papers on Southeast Asia (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1986), 13,14.

6 Mills, 34.

7 See especially Pierre Brocheux, "Crise économique et société en Indochine française," Revue Française d'Histoire d'Outre-Mer, 18:232-233 (1977) and Daniel Hemery, " Aux origines de la guerre d'indépendance Vietnamienne: pouvoir colonial et phénomène communiste en Indochine avant la deuxième guerre mondiale," Le Mouvement Social, 10 (Paris: Editions Ouvrières, oct.-dec. 1976).

8 Milton Osborne, "From Conviction to Anxiety: The French Self-Image in Vietnam," Flinders Asian Studies Lecture 7 (South Australia: Flinders University, 1976).

9 Cited in Raoul Girardet, L'idée coloniale en France (Paris: Livre de Poche, 1979).

10 Duras, L'Amant, 33, 51 and 94.

11 On this topic, see for instance Louis Malleret, L'exotisme Indochinois dans la litterature Française depuis 1860 (Paris: Larose Editeurs, 1934) and Milton Osborne, "Fear and Fascination in the Tropics: A Reader's Guide to French Fiction in Indochina," Wisconsin Papers on Southeast Asia, (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1986).

12 Duras, L'Amant, 51 and 64-65.

13 Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized 1957. (New York: The Orion Press, 1965) 19-44.

14 Duras, L'Amant de la Chine du Nord, 161.

15 See, for instance, Duras, L'Amant, 72 and 33-34.

16 Duras, L'Amant de la Chine du Nord, 117.

17 Duras, Le Barrage, 19-24, 45-49; L'Amant, 35-36, 43; L'Amant de la Chine du Nord, 97-100. The theme of the sale of useless land to a poor European appears in at least one other "Indochinese" novel written by a woman: George André-Cuel's La jonque immobile (Paris: Plon, 1926), 20.

18 See especially Le Barrage, 45.

19 L'Amant, 22.

20 Albert Memmi, 19-44.

21 See for instance Raoul Girardet, L'idée coloniale en France (Paris: Livre de Poche, 1979), ch. 4.

22 On the issue of the projection of the colonized is self hatred and self pity onto those in a position similar to their own, see especially Frantz Fanon, Peaux noires, masques blancs (Paris: Seuil, 1952), ch. 4; Memmi, 91; Thiele, 8.

23 Duras, L'Amant, 33-34, 112.

24 Duras, L'Amant, 73.

25 Duras, L'Amant, 109.

26 Duras, L'Amant, 45.

27 Direction Générale de L'Instruction Publique (DGIP), Le service de l' instruction publique en Indochine in 1930 ( Hanoi: Imprimerie d'Extrême Orient, 1930), 76, 99 and ff.; Gail Kelly, Franco-Vietnamese Schools, 1918-1938 (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin, 1975).

28 Duras, L'Amant, 16 and 13.

29 Duras, L'Amant, 63.

30 Duras, L'Amant, 49

31 Duras, L'Amant, 19-20.

32 Gabrielle Vassal, Mes trois ans d'Annam (Paris: Hachette, 1912) 76; Dany Carrel, L'Annamite (Paris: Robert Lafont, 1991), photo insets.

33 Cited in Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Woman, Native, Other (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana Uni. Press, 1989), 85.

34 Cited in John Mc Bratney, "Images of Indian Women in Rudyard Kipling, A Case of Doubling Discourse," in Inscriptions, no. 3/4 (1988), 47.

35 Duras, L'Amant, 11-12 and 99.

36 Duras, L'Amant, 18.

37 Duras, L'Amant, 53.

38 Duras, L'Amant, 59.

39 Memmi, 19 and ff.

40 Francine Dugas-Portes, "L'Indochine de Marguerite Duras," L'Indochine, Reflets littéraires (Rennes: Presses de l'Université,1992), 80.

41 Duras, L'Amant, 120.

42 Duras, L'Amant, 60-61.

43 cf. Fanon.

44 Homi Bhabha, "Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse", Politics and Ideology, Donald and Hall eds., England: Open Uni. Press, Milton Keynes, 1986).

45 Lorde, cited in Trinh T. Minh-Ha, 85.

46 Osborne, From Conviction to Anxiety, 22.

47 See, for example, Ramsay and Sankey.

48 Kristeva, 141-142 and 138.

49 Kristeva, 141.

50 Kristeva, 142.

51 Patrick Laude, Exotisme indochinois et poésie (Paris: Sudestasie, 1990) 95.

52 Malleret, 48.

53 Exotic and colonial literatures are seen here as overlapping categories which participate in different ways and to a degree defined by the position of the writer in the Orientalist discourse underpinning the system of knowledge through which, according to Said (Orientalism, 2-4), Europe not only created the Orient culturally but used this creation to hegemonic political ends.

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