Published in 1984, L'Amant (The Lover) is a novel based on the real-life story of its author, French writer Marguerite Duras. Though the protagonist, a 15-year-old girl, a remains unnamed, it's considered to be Duras herself: this short book is a kind of memoir based on her early years living in Saigon. The story is told from the perspective of the girl, many years later, when she's looking back on her youth.
The story is set in French Indochina in the 1930s. The girl is on a ferry, traveling across the Mekong Delta. After a holiday with her family (a respectable family, but a family that's going through tough times, financially speaking—the girl's father is dead, and her mother is depressed), she's on her way back to Saigon, where she attends boarding school.
On the boat, she's approached by an elegant Chinese man who's young (but not that young; he's 12 years older than the girl). He offers her a cigarette and starts talking with her. He's wealthy, by all indications: at the end of the ferry ride, he's met by his chauffeur, and he offers the girl a ride in his limousine. The young man is revealed to be the heir to a great fortune.
The girl, thinking of her family's hardship, realizes that she stands to benefit from the fact that the Chinese man is attracted to her. She's afraid for her own future, and she accepts his advances. They become lovers, and the girl experiences a sexual awakening. But both the girl and the man are afraid of their relationship being found out; it would be scandalous, as she's underage, and there's a major social and racial gap between them. Still, the girl stays with the relationship, and the Chinese man helps to support her family. Her family guesses at the nature of the relationship, but they still accept his financial support, partly because they're desperate for it.
More people find out about the relationship, and as expected, the public reaction (particularly among the colonial French community) is not positive. The Chinese man's father demands that his son end the affair, or face being cut off from the wealth he's due to inherit.
The relationship between the lovers breaks off after about a year and a half, when the girl's family returns to France. The girl is 17. Back in France, she becomes a writer, marries, and has children.
Later, after the death of her younger brother—one of the brothers whom she lived with, along with her mother, back in Saigon—the girl (now a woman) looks back on her youth and remembers her Chinese lover. She receives a phone call from him, and he tells her he still loves her. The book ends with her own contemplation of the past, and her reevaluation of her own feelings for her former lover.
In her short and powerful novel, which won the Prix Goncourt in France in 1984, Duras recounts the largely autobiographical story of her family’s struggles in Southeast Asia. The major characters of the book are the narrator, whose obsessive remembrances of her days as a high school student in Saigon center the novel; the Chinese lover, whose father prevents him from marrying the narrator; the narrator’s mother, whose favoritism for her older son and alternating encouragement and abuse of the narrator undermine the family; the older brother, who terrorizes his younger brother and sister while never finishing the school courses his mother arranges for him; and the younger brother, whose death spurs the narrator to attempt suicide.
Central themes of the book include memory and separation. Memory provides the frame for the novel, which is the recollection of a middle-aged Frenchwoman. One image that combines these themes is the photograph. The narrator describes how the mother has the family go to the photographer, always having pictures of the family group but not taking pictures of “Vinh Long . . . of the garden, the river, the straight tamarind-lined...
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