L'amant de la Chine du nord


Inspired by Richard's commitment to multi-lingual reading and blogging, I've decided to try to work on my languages as well, and read more novels in the original French. How many is "more"? Well, last year I read a grand total of one. So, in order to top that, this year I'll need to read...two. Maybe the year after that I'll read three. As you can tell, I'm practically signing up for À la recherche du temps perdu already.

Considering that last year's pick, J.M.G. Le Clézio's Ourania, was something of a struggle for me and took several months to complete, I'm startled to find that I've already finished my first French book of 2010: Marguerite Duras's L'amant de la chine du nord (available in English translation as The North China Lover). Duras's book is actually a re-working of her earlier novel L'amant; it re-envisions the story as a film, and retells it from a more complete, possibly mature angle. Both L'amant and L'amant de la chine du nord are fictionalized memoirs dealing with Duras's sexual coming-of-age as a young - very young - Frenchwoman in 1920s Vietnam (then French Indochina). Well, let me be blunter: it tells the story of her first consummated affair, with a wealthy 28-year-old Chinese man, when she was fourteen.

Given that plot there's obviously a lot to talk about here vis-a-vis sexual and gender dynamics, but let's get some formalist stuff out of the way first: Duras's prose is vivid and lush, and the fact that she wrote this novel as if giving screen directions (including camera pans, fade-ins and fade-outs, etc.), makes the reading experience overwhelmingly visual. This kind of narration is often a turn-off for me; I tend to find it choppy or overly mannered. But in Duras's case I think it works perfectly for two reasons. In the first place, this is one of those books in which the setting is almost as much of a character as the characters themselves. The hot monsoon nights, the flooded rice fields, the night sounds of the young Vietnamese night guards singing outside the gates of the main character's colonial boarding school - presenting all this to the audience front-and-center brings it to the foreground, and persuades the reader to concentrate on it, to see it. And secondly, in a film all the viewer knows about a character's motivations is how she sees them acting - she has no direct access to their interior monologue. A cinematic approach, then, plays perfectly into one of Duras's main themes in this novel: the ambiguity of human actions.

For L'amant de la chine du nord does not leave the reader with any clear answers about why the characters act as they do, or how we ought to feel about it. Compared to, say, Lolita, which argues pretty plainly for Humbert as a delusional, dirty old man and Delores Haze as his victim, Duras's moral universe is extremely murky. The main character, known only as "l'enfant" ("the child"), comes from a desperately poor family of French settlers in Indochina; we later learn that she has already had several offers of marriage/concubinage from men in their thirties, which her mother has pressed her to accept in order to alleviate the family's poverty, but which she has refused. In her boarding school, certain teachers and even students choose to prostitute themselves in the streets. In this light, her meeting with and choice to pursue her wealthy lover (known in the novel as le Chinois or The Chinaman) seems a clear economic decision, the best she can do in a bad situation.

But things are not so simple. There's no question that l'enfant lusts after le Chinois - that her psyche is, in fact, super-saturated with lust. She has incestuous thoughts about her younger brother, with whom she is extremely close. She is already involved in a semi-sexual relationship with one of her female school friends, and the two of them fantasize about taking the place of their prostitute teacher - the idea of forbidden sex being thrilling to them. From practically the moment she meets le Chinois, she is fascinated by his physicality - she is the aggressor in their relationship, and it seems as though she is acting from real feeling, not just aping the actions of adults in order to produce a desired effect.

At the same time, it's not completely positive for her, or comfortable to read; her experiences of actually having sex, especially at first, involve a lot more pain and suffering than pleasure, and she seems perplexed by the strength of Le Chinois's emotions when he falls in love with her. He is weeping about how his magnate father will disinherit him if he marries her, and she is teasing him and wanting him to tell her more about life in China. Duras does a creepily effectual job at blending L'enfant's precocious sensuality and sexuality with certain other, very kid-like, qualities in her. She kind of just wants to experiment and learn about the world, and also to have sex. Would she want to have sex if it weren't for her family's poverty, and the possibility of getting her hands on some of Le Chinois's money? Would she want to have sex if she hadn't been prematurely sexualized by the men who want to buy her from her mother, and by her feelings for her brother, and by the boarding school atmosphere? One can't help asking these questions, but at the same time they're a bit pointless: if those things had been different, she would have been a completely different person.

And here's another thing that's unusual in this type of story: L'enfant and Le Chinois enjoy each others' company. You never get the sense that Lolita and Humbert ever have fun together, but L'enfant and Le Chinois go out late at night to restaurants in the Chinese section of town, tell each other stories, laugh at each others' frankness. To be fair, there is also a lot of crying in the book, and overall it's somewhat melancholic, but unlike Kristin Lavransdatter it also has its fair share of mutual enjoyment of the present moment. And although the affair (inevitably) ends, and everyone feels sad about that for a while, L'enfant doesn't really suffer as a punishment for having sex, in the way that Lolita, Tess Durbyfield, and other literary sexual victims do (dying in childbirth, no less! Talk about sexual punishment). Duras's protagonist goes through a mixed emotional experience and then gets on with her life, but one never gets the sense that she is suffering, or enjoying herself, as a vehicle for the author to make a point about who is right and who is wrong. Duras's book is the most non-judgmental treatment - in either a positive or negative way - of sex between a very young person and an older person, I've ever come across. I wouldn't call it primarily a love story, but neither would I say it's primarily a tale of oppression. (And speaking of oppression: the racial dynamics among the transplanted white French, colonized Vietnamese, and wealthy landowning Chinese are another whole fascinating subject.)

The whole tale brings up interesting questions about the triangulation of love, lust, liking, and money. If L'enfant is more or less engaging in sex work, does that mean she doesn't love Le Chinois? Does it mean she doesn't like him? If her first feeling upon seeing him is one of lust, does that invalidate the money motive? To what extent are the desires for money and sex interwoven? And what should we, as readers, be hoping for as we read this story? Duras allows all of these elements to coexist in uneasy harmony, which in itself is an admirable feat.

(Because of the strong, thought-provoking themes of young female sexuality, I'm counting this novel toward the Women Unbound Challenge.)


  • That's quite a goal. Glad to hear you enjoyed this story. I've just obtained a copy of Hiroshima Mon Amour and am hoping for good things. Also glad to know the play form works because that's what this one actually is. I also own a copy of The Sailor from Gibraltar and hope to read my first Duras very soon.

  • I've long been interested in Duras without ever having read her yet, Emily, and this exceptional post of yours certainly ups the ante for me: what complicated emotional and psychological terrain it sounds like there is to be found in this novel! I'm also super happy to see you reading more fiction in French--whether that means you get to Proust in French this year or not. Should be exciting!

  • What a great write up and I admire that you can read Duras in French. I've only read one Duras book a year or two ago, Moderato Cantabile, and really liked it. It too had quite a lot of ambiguity in it but oh, the language was ever so beautiful and rich. When I am ready to read another Duras, I'll have to keep this one in mind.

  • Sandra: I hope you like Duras! I've never seen the famous Hiroshima Mon Amour film, and having read some Duras I'm now very curious to watch it. Apparently the director got discouraged with the project and told the producer he didn't think he could do the film unless Marguerite Duras would write the screenplay. Intriguing...!

    Richard: Thanks for your language-related encouragement! Duras really wet my whistle for more francophone reads - I'm thinking I might read Suite française next. Duras definitely impressed me - I'd be curious about your thoughts if you ever get around to reading her.

  • Stefanie: Yes, to rich and beautiful language! :-) And yes to ambiguity. I really admire Duras's self-restraint, not answering any of my questions for me but making me answer them on my own.

  • Ok, so you motivated me to pick up André Gide's Les caves du Vatican from my local French bookseller tonight. It's not a Duras, but it is another Folio title. With any luck, you can prob. expect a review within 3 months or so (my French is way rusty, which I might have mentioned to you multiple times before, my friend)!

  • Only three months, Richard? My french is so rusty that I am not sure how long it would take me. Hopefully, all those years of study just roll back to one.

    Have read Duras in translation, and enjoyed L'Amant or The Lover and would be curious to compare to this re-working. Something so pragmatic about her. Things simply are, if that makes any sense. "Duras allows all of these elements to coexist in uneasy harmony, which in itself is an admirable feat." Almost think that the unease rests with the reader, the other, and not the young girl. And I think that Duras is conscious of this. A subtle manipulation.

  • Richard: I was just looking at Gide's Symphonie pastorale! Great minds. I got all excited and started compiling a wishlist of Folios. :-) And friend, your French can't be anywhere near as rusty as my Spanish! (By the way, did your post about not joining the Decades Challenge just disappear? Kind of meta, if it did.)

    Frances: YES, that's true, excellent point. If you're reading her and you feel uneasy, it's all down to you, not to her or her characters. Things simply are. For sure.

  • Frances, I was being optimistic!

    Emily, I wrote that post in invisible ink (i.e. I deleted it and have now reposted an altered version for at least 1 good reason + 1 silly reason). Funnily enough, you're the second person to "comment" on it after the fact even though nobody commented on it officially before I yanked it. What a bunch of lurkers I have at my blog, ha!

  • Hmm, yeah the plot does sound quite discomforting, but you do make it sound interesting nevertheless (hmm, after I finish Lolita perhaps?). And you read French! Very nice :) If I ever read this book, I'll just have to settle for the English edition.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography