The very first sentence in Marguerite Duras’ semi-autobiographical novel The Lover speaks at once to the lifetime of emotional hardships and abuse to which Duras’ narrator has been subjected:
“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.”
As the narrator continues, she states that “I grew old at eighteen.” The reader, consequently, knows that this will be a story of a difficult life, but does not yet know the details. Those details, however, are presented full-force in Duras’ discussion of her mother’s treatment of her and her brothers. It is in this discussion that Duras’ narrator displays the emotional and physical abuse to which she was subjected as a young girl growing up in poverty in a foreign land. Early in this discussion, the narrator notes that her mother “looked down on the weak,” and then proceeds to illustrate the manner in which she, the young girl, personified “the weak.” Commenting on her mother’s racist attitude towards the Chinese in general and the girl’s Chinese boyfriend, an affluent older man, the narrator writes:
“Of my lover from Cholon (the capital of French Indochina and a major center of ethnic Chinese commercial activities) she spoke the same way as my elder brother. I won’t write the words down. They were words that had to do with the carrion you find in the desert.”
While the narrator’s eternal sadness will be deeply aggravated by the death of the younger of her two brothers – a death she will blame on the older brother – it is her treatment at the hands of her mother that inflicts the deepest emotional scars. Her mother, as noted, is deeply racist regarding the Chinese, and the mere idea that her daughter, only 15-years-old, could be involved with a man from a racially-inferior species is sufficient to send her into a violent paranoid rage. In the following passage, the narrator describes her mother’s reaction:
“My mother has attacks during which she falls on me, locks me up in my room, punches me, undresses me, comes up to me and smells my body, my underwear, she says she can smell the Chinese scent, goes even further, looks for suspect stains on my underwear, and shouts, for the whole town to hear, that her daughter’s a prostitute . . .”
The “lover” of the title is this wealthy Chinese man, whose family is as racist regarding Europeans as the French are regarding Asians. That the two will never be married, with the man subjected to an arranged marriage courtesy of his family, compounds the now-grown-woman’s emotional trauma. Early in the novel the two meet on a ferry, and the story quickly transitions to their first time in bed. She notes his weakness, both physical and emotional: “He says he’s lonely, horribly lonely because of this love he feels for her. She says she’s lonely too. She doesn’t say why.” The reader will soon learn “why,” as the girl’s story of abuse at the hands of her mother describes the destruction of a human psyche.