The North China Lover is a re-telling of the same story as in Marguerite Duras’ probably best known work The Lover. The novel makes references to its predecessor in the form of corrections. The male protagonist, for instance, is described as slightly different in this version, while the female protagonist, or the child as she is often referred to, is described as being the same. The book also includes film directions, as if Duras was trying to correct the film Jean-Jacques Annaud had created the year before, based on the first book.
The story takes place in the French colonies in Asia, where Duras grew up. So it’s likely that it is at least in part auto-biographical.
A French family in colonial Vietnam, impoverished after the death of the husband and some bad business decisions. A mother, two sons, and a daughter in her early teens.
The girl meets a rich Chinese man and they have an affair.
He is madly in love with her. But it is unclear throughout the entire book whether the girl actually loves him or if she is just manipulating him out of childlike curiosity on the one hand and financial gain on the other.
Nevertheless, they do have a real relationship that consists mostly of meetings in an apartment the man seems to possess precisely for this purpose. He is described as weak and fragile. He does absolutely nothing. He doesn’t need to. His family is rich. The contrast between him and the girl’s older abusive brother could not be greater.
Despite the age and race difference, the girl’s family encourages the relationship for the sake of the money. The man does help the family in the end. But this cannot prevent their return to France. The emotions the couple experience in the period between knowing she will leave and the actual departure are described in great detail.
The book ends years later when the girl, now a woman, in France, receives a phone call from the Chinese man. He tells her that he has never stopped loving her.
This is another book in which Duras investigates “abnormal” love. But, again, she does this without dismissal or glorification. The fact that the girl’s feelings remain ambiguous seems perfectly normal, given her age. She is simply not capable yet of loving the man as much as he loves her.
The novel also paints a very nuanced portrait of racism, in all its shapes and sizes. Despite the white family’s poverty, they still feel somehow superior to this immeasurably rich Chinese man. But this does not really bother him. He is accustomed to it. He is very sophisticated, well mannered and even kind. While the white family of the girl comes across as virtually savage, cruel and uncultured.
But it is to Duras’ credit that she doesn’t judge. There is love everywhere. Next to the romantic and sensual love between the girl and her lover, there is the adoration of the mother for the older son, the love of the girl for her younger retarded brother, the love between both children and an indigenous servant of about their age, and the love between the girl and her schoolmates.
Many beautiful details appear in the book. Movingly precise descriptions of the motions of hands, glances of eyes, warm humid skin, etc. Duras’ superb restraint somehow leads to some of the most acutely recognizable presentations of the emotions that coincide with love, and the suffering of separation. It’s when we are silent that we feel the most. When nothing in our face or our demeanor betrays any emotion, that we show our nobility, the nobility of creatures who love.