The Lover is a novella by French writer Marguerita Duras. Both the book and the author piqued my interest because of their setting and background. Duras (a pen name of Marguerite Donnadieu) was born in 1914 near Saigon, French Indochina – now Vietnam. The Lover is also set there, making it easy to imagine the book as semi-biographical.
It tells a story of a 15-year-old girl in 1929 who is traveling by ferry across Mekong Delta, when she attracts the attention of a 27-year-old wealthy Chinese man. He strikes up a conversation, and things just roll after that into an affair.
As in The Waiting Years, I was immediately aware of the girl’s age and wondered whether it was an acceptable age back then. But it is made clear somewhere in the book that she is considered under age, and the man knows it’s punishable by prison (though in reality I imagine this could be swept swiftly under the rug by the position and wealth of the man’s family). This isn’t a big point in the book however, and just personally added to the uncomfortable feeling I had about the couple’s affair.
The dynamic of the affair itself is highly unusual, and shows much about the perception and position of white French people and of Chinese people (not Vietnamese) in Indochina at the time. The girl’s family is poor, and the girl and her family look down on the man, as he is Chinese, but they go along with the affair because he is rich (or his father is). The man’s father obviously disapproves. The man’s love for the girl seems real and overflowing, but the girl is more ambivalent.
What surprised me the most however was the style it is written. I expected a straightforward coming-of-age love story, and instead I got a jumble of memories and stream of consciousness. The story is far from linear. It goes back and forth, showing snippets here and there, and revisit some scene multiple times from different angle (in particular the meeting scene between the couple) – just like memories in our head.
Apart from The Lover, Duras has another 2 novels in 1001 Books list: The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein and The Vice-Consul, both I have never seen any review about from bloggy and GR friends, but she seems like a writer to watch. Based on this novel I’m not sure yet if I’ll read another of her book, because I wasn’t fond of her style, but I’ll keep an eye on those titles.
Mee’s rating: 4/5
The Lover – the movie (1992)
As expected, the movie is a really hard one to make. The girl is played by Jane March (English, who turned 18 shortly after filming began), and the man is played by Tony Leung Ka-fai (not to be confused with the other Tony Leung).
So as you can see, language is a big issue. The girl is supposed to be French, the guy Chinese, but they’re in Vietnam/Indochina, and the actress is English. What language to use? In fact this is not even clear in the book – what language do they communicate with? I assume French, because the man mentioned that he studied in France.
In the movie the decision fell on English as the common language. So just like Memoirs of a Geisha movie, everybody seems to talk awkwardly in a language that is not their own and does not belong to the world the characters are in.
It’s not all bad however, as the setting of Vietnam/Indochina here is absolutely beautiful. I would watch the movie for the setting alone. The Mekong Delta, the port, the tropical houses, the hustle and bustle of the market lane the man’s house is in. All fascinating and exotic looking the way South East Asia does it.
Possibly hard to find movie, but worth watching after reading the book if you can get it.
Mee’s rating: 7/10