Authors: Marguerite Duras
Translation copyright © 1985 by Random House, Inc., and William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd.
Introduction copyright © 1997 by Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in France as
by Les Editions de Minuit. Copyright © 1984 by Les Éditions de Minuit. This translation originally published in hardcover in Great Britain by William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., London, and in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, in 1985.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Translation of: L’amant.
PQ2607.U8245A62613 1985 843’.912 84-26321
Random House Web Address:
FOR BRUNO NUYTTEN
I am reading
in Ho Chi Minh City during the Tet season, 1997. Vietnam is free—free of the Japanese, free of the French, free of the Americans, free of the Chinese, free of the Cambodians. Vietnam, once a synonym for endless war, is at peace. Everywhere I go, I return glad smiles; I hear relieved voices. A Hanoi woman kissed me, and said “I love you” in Chinese. She wrote “I love you” in Chinese on the flyleaf of her novel, her gift to me. I said “I love you” in Chinese back to her. “I love you” is all the Chinese she knows, and all the language we have in common. Commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the Vietnam
Writers Association, she talked-story about a woman who had nine children killed in war. Kissing me, she kissed an American with roots in two countries that warred against Vietnam.
The couple with no names in
also reach each other through history that moved populations singly and en masse to and fro across the earth and into its every corner. Neither the girl in the fedora and gold lamé heels nor the Chinese man from Cholon belong in Vietnam; she is a generation removed from France, and he, generations away from China. The girl and her mother and brothers are barbarians,
. How to enroot oneself but to make primitive, sexual connection with another? It may be that erotic love is more intense, dramatic, and romantic under imperialist colonialist circumstances than during normalization. Another pair of lovers, the ones in
Hiroshima, Mon Amour
, try to part; they may meet again, next war. “Please, leave me now.” “We’ll probably die without meeting again.” “Probably, unless one day there is a war.”
to be Marguerite Duras writing about herself. She was born in Indochina, and like the narrating lover “returns” to France at the age of seventeen. I’ll take the nameless “I” to be Marguerite. My favorite books are about the writer writing about writing. I, Marguerite, create myself as an artist and as a woman as I write—levels and levels of consciousness—consciousness
of consciousness. And I also make up the world, and a place to be. Rootless, I existentially write myself the stable world. “I’m going to write. That’s what I see beyond the present moment, in the great desert in whose form my life stretches out before me.” “I want to write. I’ve already told my mother: That’s what I want to do—write. No answer the first time. Then she asks, Write what? I say, Books, novels. She says grimly, When you’ve got your math degree you can write if you like, it won’t be anything to do with me then. She’s against it, it’s not worthy, it’s not real work, it’s nonsense. Later she said, A childish idea.” “I answered that what I wanted more than anything else in the world was to write, nothing else but that, nothing.” “I’m still part of the family, it’s there I live to the exclusion of everywhere else. It’s in its aridity, its terrible harshness, its malignance, that I’m most deeply sure of myself, at the heart of my essential certainty, the certainty that later on I’ll be a writer.”
is a story about girl and woman becoming artist.
I feel all right about taking this fiction as Marguerite Duras’s autobiography. In Duras’s movie,
Hiroshima, Mon Amour
, the heroine is making a movie about peace. Duras’s heroines have the same profession as she does, writing the book and making the film as she lives her life. Author, narrator, protagonist speaks in one clear integral voice of a whole life. Her writer’s curiosity rushes forth to know the foreigner, the alien. The
Hiroshima, Mon Amour
, loves the enemy, a German soldier. Long after the war is over, she has a Japanese lover. Always, Marguerite Duras’s attention—her writer’s love—embraces the Other. Thirty years after the French left Vietnam, she overcame “reticence,” and wrote
. “Now she comes to write it down.” The woman writer takes upon herself her highest responsibility and “quest”: enwording the most otherly man. One of the pleasures of loving the Chinese man is to write him down. She may be loving him to have something to write. She has a story to tell because of having loved him. I listen to war veterans say that when they were dumb kids, they went to the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese call the American War) to find something to write about.
It is wonderful that the beloved be a Chinese man, and that the naked masculine body in
Hiroshima, Mon Amour
belongs to a Japanese man. Marguerite Duras honors the Asian male as sexy being, beautiful and worthy of art and love.
I trust Marguerite Duras’s seeing and her listening. The lovers listen to the city outside their apartment: “The clatter of wooden clogs is earsplitting, the voices strident, Chinese is a language that’s shouted the way I always imagine desert languages are, it’s a language that’s incredibly foreign.” In the film: “The art of seeing has to be learned.” “You saw nothing in Hiroshima.” “I saw everything.”
Here in Ho Chi Minh City, where Marguerite Duras lived when it was Saigon, I am meeting writers and poets, and hearing of soldiers carrying a poem on their hearts into battle. They say that the Americans wouldn’t have gone to war in Vietnam if they’d known this poem, this song, this myth. We reply that we wouldn’t have gone to war with them if we’d known that their soldiers were poets. This strange culture made up of many wars and of people from everywhere is Marguerite Duras’s ancestral place. In the end, Duras is the lover, and she shows us how to see and hear and love and leave Vietnam.
MAXINE HONG KINGSTON
Ho Chi Minh City
One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said, “I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.”
I often think of the image only I can see now, and of which I’ve never spoken. It’s always there, in the same silence, amazing. It’s the only image of myself I like,
the only one in which I recognize myself, in which I delight.
Very early in my life it was too late. It was already too late when I was eighteen. Between eighteen and twenty-five my face took off in a new direction. I grew old at eighteen. I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone, I’ve never asked. But I believe I’ve heard of the way time can suddenly accelerate on people when they’re going through even the most youthful and highly esteemed stages of life. My ageing was very sudden. I saw it spread over my features one by one, changing the relationship between them, making the eyes larger, the expression sadder, the mouth more final, leaving great creases in the forehead. But instead of being dismayed I watched this process with the same sort of interest I might have taken in the reading of a book. And I knew I was right, that one day it would slow down and take its normal course. The people who knew me at seventeen, when I went to France, were surprised when they saw me again two years later, at nineteen. And I’ve kept it ever since, the new face I had then. It has been my face. It’s got older still, of course, but less, comparatively, than it would otherwise have done. It’s scored with deep, dry wrinkles, the skin is cracked. But my face hasn’t collapsed, as some with fine features have done. It’s kept the same
contours, but its substance has been laid waste. I have a face laid waste.
So, I’m fifteen and a half.
It’s on a ferry crossing the Mekong River.
The image lasts all the way across.
I’m fifteen and a half, there are no seasons in that part of the world, we have just the one season, hot, monotonous, we’re in the long hot girdle of the earth, with no spring, no renewal.
I’m at a state boarding school in Saigon. I eat and sleep there, but I go to classes at the French high school. My mother is a teacher and wants her girl to have a secondary education. “You have to go to high school.” What was enough for her is not enough for her daughter. High school and then a good degree in mathematics. That was what had been dinned into me ever since I started school. It never crossed my mind I might escape the mathematics degree, I was glad to give her that hope. Every day I saw her planning her own and her children’s future. There came a time when she couldn’t plan anything very grand for her sons any more, so she planned other futures, makeshift ones, but they too served their purpose, they blocked in the time that lay ahead. I remember my younger brother’s
courses in bookkeeping. From the Universal Correspondence School—every year, every level. You have to catch up, my mother used to say. It would last for three days, never four. Never. We’d drop the Universal School whenever my mother was posted to another place. And begin again in the next. My mother kept it up for ten years. It wasn’t any good. My younger brother became an accountant’s clerk in Saigon. There was no technical school in the colonies; we owed my elder brother’s departure for France to that. He stayed in France for several years to study at the technical school. But he didn’t keep it up. My mother must have known. But she had no choice, he had to be got away from the other two children. For several years he was no longer part of the family. It was while he was away that my mother bought the land. A terrible business, but for us, the children who were left, not so terrible as the presence of the killer would have been, the child-killer of the night, of the night of the hunter.
I’ve often been told it was because of spending all one’s childhood in too strong a sun. But I’ve never believed it. I’ve also been told it was because being poor made us brood. But no, that wasn’t it. Children like little old men because of chronic hunger, yes. But us, no, we weren’t hungry. We were white children, we were ashamed, we sold our furniture, but we weren’t hungry, we had a houseboy and we ate. Sometimes, admittedly,
we ate garbage—storks, baby crocodiles—but the garbage was cooked and served by a houseboy, and sometimes we refused it, too, we indulged in the luxury of declining to eat. No, something occurred when I was eighteen to make this face happen. It must have been at night. I was afraid of myself, afraid of God. In the daylight I was less afraid, and death seemed less important. But it haunted me all the time. I wanted to kill—my elder brother, I wanted to kill him, to get the better of him for once, just once, and see him die. I wanted to do it to remove from my mother’s sight the object of her love, that son of hers, to punish her for loving him so much, so badly, and above all—as I told myself, too—to save my younger brother, my younger brother, my child, save him from the living life of that elder brother superimposed on his own, from that black veil over the light, from the law which was decreed and represented by the elder brother, a human being, and yet which was an animal law, filling every moment of every day of the younger brother’s life with fear, a fear that one day reached his heart and killed him.
I’ve written a good deal about the members of my family, but then they were still alive, my mother and my brothers. And I skirted around them, skirted around all these things without really tackling them.
• • •
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 story of one small part of my youth I’ve already written, more or less—I mean, enough to give a glimpse of it. Of this part, I mean, the part about the crossing of the river. What I’m doing now is both different and the same. Before, I spoke of clear periods, those on which the light fell. Now I’m talking about the hidden stretches of that same youth, of certain facts, feelings, events that I buried. I started to write in surroundings that drove me to reticence. Writing, for those people, was still something moral. Nowadays it often seems writing is nothing at all. Sometimes I realize that if writing isn’t, all things, all contraries confounded, a quest for vanity and void, it’s nothing. That if it’s not, each time, all things confounded into one through some inexpressible essence, then writing is nothing but advertisement. But usually I have no opinion, I can see that all options are open now, that there seem to be no more barriers, that writing seems at a loss for somewhere to hide, to be written, to be read. That its basic unseemliness is no longer accepted. But at that point I stop thinking about it.