Marguerite Duras’s August 1984 book The Lover, published in the heyday of deconstructive thought, bears the signs of that thought in the sense that while it operates without boundaries, it yet is bounded by the very system that calls it forth. It is a paradox, in fact.
The book has no boundaries of time and space, first of all. The story, which purports to be mainly about the love affair between a girl in her mid-teens and her lover in his late twenties in French colonial Indochina, is broken up into short segments of a page or two to less than a page, and the time and place sequences are confusing in their order, since the story does not proceed from the beginning to the end, or start at the end and go back to the beginning forward, or even proceed in a sequence with various flashbacks, in short in any of the more standard ways in which a story often is told. Rather, it is mostly all flashback, so to speak, but the flashbacks come in what seems like any old order. As the main character, the young Lolita-like Caucasian teenage girl with the Chinese lover says near the beginning, “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.” This is not only a character speaking of herself and giving some insight into what she is like, however, but an off-the-cuff analysis of how the story itself operates and is written.
Other boundaries which are broken are taboos. She is Caucasian, he is Chinese, which is a taboo in the French Indochina of the time because even though he is rich and she is poor, she is of higher status than he is. Her lover is also nearly twice as old as she is. In several places, she says outright that her elder brother is a fratricidal “hunter” who is responsible for the death of her younger brother (who is two years her senior), though it’s unclear in what exact sense this is true. Her mother doesn’t love her children all equally, which is often thought of as taboo as well. The lover uses her as a prostitute, yet even this set of boundaries is not observed, because he loves her and tells her so, and even after many years, at the end of the book when he calls her in Paris, he says he still loves her.
The decadence of the whole book is heralded in the main atmospheric conditions, which also have no boundaries, but saturate the entire “feel” of the book. The climate of Indochina of the colonial period, with its heat, humidity, conditions of fever and wood-rot and somnolence, is made to stand as the “objective correlative” (to use T. S. Eliot’s term) for the desire which the young girl says she has to die. Yet at least twice when she communicates this desire to cease to exist, she follows it up with the remark that she wants to write. It is as if in the writing itself she will somehow cease to exist.
The text as well has no boundaries of narrative perspectives which remain unbroken. The child tells her own story through much of the book, yet there are also passages such as this one: “Fifteen and a half. The news spreads fast in Sadec. The clothes she wears are enough to show. The mother has no idea, and none about how to bring up a daughter. Poor child. Don’t tell me that hat’s innocent, or the lipstick, it all means something, it’s to attract attention, money. The brothers are layabouts. They say it’s a Chinese, the son of the millionaire, the villa in Mekong with the blue tiles. And even he, instead of thinking himself honored, doesn’t want her for his son. A family of white layabouts.” The narrative about the girl and her lover sometimes uses first person from her perspective, but sometimes uses third person, as if the mature writer is intruding into the story and objectifying the experience. As well, there are two confusing segments near the halfway point in the text where a short history or sketch about an American expatriate living in Paris named Marie-Claude Carpenter and then about two collaborators in the war named Betty and Ramon Fernandez occur. The history of these three characters is brief and intrudes in the midst of the story of the girl and her lover, and is not otherwise explained.
Perhaps the whole tale may be finally explicated by this one remark in the text, which is said of the mature writer when she is later in Paris: “[In her lover’s voice] she heard again the voice of China.” The entire book is thus the tale not solely of a decadent Caucasian family in China, but of their desperate love affair with the country itself in the colonial period. As the girl says in what seems like only a casual comparison at the time, there is a similarity between having an affair with a person of lower status and colonizing a country–the book is an emotional “history” of that colonization of a rich country and that girl’s affair with a rich man who is still seen by their family and society as inferior to her because he is part of the indigenous population. Thus, finally, this one boundary is affirmed when the lover, years later, calls her up in Paris: “Years after the war, after marriages, children, divorces, books, he came to Paris with his wife. He phoned her. It’s me. She recognized him at once from the voice. He said, I just wanted to hear your voice. She said, It’s me, hello. He was nervous, afraid, as before. His voice suddenly trembled. And with the trembling, suddenly, she heard again the voice of China. He knew she’d begun writing books, he’d heard about it through her mother whom he’d met again in Saigon. And about her younger brother, and he’d been grieved for her. Then he didn’t know what to say. And then he told her. Told her that it was as before, that he still loved her, he could never stop loving her, that he’d love her until death.”
Yes, this one boundary, between the two people, which is not only a barrier but also a line of unity, a union, is reaffirmed, yet in the overturn of the colonial administration, it is also stood on its head. Only the male character in the end remains the same, and the girl too, perhaps, as she has written herself.