French Indochina and Marguerite Duras


I enjoy walking through old sections of Asian towns that have colonial architecture. What can I say? I realize the backstory is one of exploitation and cruelty. On the other hand, I would prefer local architecture, but there just isn't as much of it from the past. Perhaps it is the tradition of more durable structures in Europe. Temples and pagodas make up most of the historic indigenous architecture in Asia. I remember visiting Beijing in the early 90s. There were still some of the old neighborhoods called hutongs. Now everything has been bulldozed and replaced with modern high rises. Shanghai was a major center for the colonial powers that had divided up China in the early 20th century. As a result, there are English and French areas that tourists flock to. They've been protected, traditional Chinese neighborhoods have not.

Cambodia and Vietnam still have a lot of old French neighborhoods and old government buildings. Hanoi has the largest representation. It was the administrative capital of French Indochina for most of the first half of the 20th century. Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), also has a lot of examples, but not to the extent of Hanoi. Many of the old buildings are hardly recognizable behind the signs and the electrical and phone wires. In Cambodia, Siem Riap retains much of the flavor of what it must have been 100 years ago. It's major importance was always the tourist industry - it's proximity to Angkor Wat.

Two French writers come to mind when I think of the French presence in Asia: André Malraux and Marguerite Duras. Malraux is of course famous for his writings on conflict in China. Man's Fate (La Condition Humaine) is one of the first books that people think of when talking of the European presence in Asia. My own interests took me to the writings of Marguerite Duras. Many people have read her auto-biographical novel The Lover (L'Amant) which takes place in Saigon (it was also made into a movie). But for more of an insight into colonial life, her novel The Sea Wall (Un Barrage contre le Pacifique), is truly amazing. It tells the story of a period of her life when her family lived in coastal Cambodia. Her widowed mother had put her life's savings into the purchase of land to cultivate. Whether through obstinacy or naivete, she didn't bribe the government officials and ended up with land flooded by the sea for half the year. In other words, it was useless. It was a hard life for many in the colonial world, exploitation wasn't limited to the natives, but also affected the large population of working poor from France. Still, as Duras makes quite clear, even the poorest European was much better off than native peasants.

While he was alive, Duras's father held low level government posts, and moved his family from town to town (Saigon, Hanoi, Phnom Penh). When he died, her mother took the family to Vinh Long, south of Saigon and then to the hopelessly infertile marshland of Prey Nob in Cambodia, near what is now the resort town of Sihanouk on the Gulf of Thailand, the site of her third novel, The Sea Wall. I hope in the future to visit these two places. Google maps will have to suffice for now. Here is a photo that for me captures the feel of Prey Nob as it is in The Sea Wall - (Prey Nob). 90 years ago, a barefoot Marguerite might have walked this very road.

By Kevin O'Neill


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