Herma Briffault, trans
Perennial Library 1986, pg 288
Duras’ The Seawall is one of her earlier works about Vietnam. Published in 1950, as the French empire was about to lose its eastern possessions (Dien Bien Phu was four years away), it captures an empire that had long begun to fade. Set in the mid 1920’s, Duras’ Vietnam is a place where one does not go to make a better life, but rather suffer in miserable penury. Written at a time when France had been convincing itself that the empire was critical to hold on to, it is powerful work full of cynicism that both questions the social and political dimensions of the colonial project.
Much like The Lover, the central focus of the The Sea Wall is a young woman Suzanne, who has no prospects and whose mother seems intent on marring her of to someone of wealth. It’s a purely commercial transaction, one where Suzanne’s mother in her struggle to eek out a the smallest living, places little value on her. Suzanne has agency, though, and her vacillations between the men who wish to buy her and her search for someone who she wants, give the novel its liveliness and its edge. Suzanne is certainly no prude, although she is a dreamer, her head filled with the dreams found in movie theaters. She lets one suitor, in what becomes a commercial transaction, watch her shower. Druas is frank in her depictions of the back and forth between Suzanne, her mother and the men, and it’s what lets Suzanne breathe.
Duras has sympathy for Suzanne’s mother. While she wants to essentially sell her off, she is a woman beaten down by the illusion of the empire. Moving to Vietnam with her husband to teach, she ends up a widow with two kids trying to run a plantation. The land though is worthless and despite trying to build a seawall to reclaim some of the land she’s in debt to the land agents who knowingly sold her worthless land. She slips into anger and bitterness, always hopping she can rebuild the wall. But its futile. The seas come back every year and salt the land and make it unusable. For her, the dream of an empire where you can go strike it rich don’t exist. For most colons life in the colony is all hard work and little gain. Your only hope is that some rich person who’s well connected and made their fortune years before, will connect you. For the average colon, the question is, why stay in Vietnam anyway? Suzanne’s mother never asks the question, but a reader sure will.
If one can’t make it on their own, finding a someone with means is the answer. Scenes of wealth and extreme disparity run throughout the book. Monsieur Jo, the dandy, is the most obvious example. He offers Suzanne gifts, drives around in a large chauffeur driven car. Her description of the large city (possibly Saigon) near the farm gives you the sense of the differences.
As in all Colonial cities, there were two towns within this one: the white town-and the other. And in the white town there were still other differences. The periphery of the white town was known as the Haut-Quartier—the upper district, comprising villas and apartment buildings. It was the largest and airiest part of the city and was where the secular and official powers had their places. The more basic power-the financial—had its places in the center of the white town, where, crowded in from all sides by the mass of the city, buildings sprang up, each year higher and higher. The financiers were the true priests of this Mecca.
Duras does describe the Vietnamese and the poverty they are subjected to. She also describes a Malay servant, the Corporal, the family has. Stylistically she her writing changes when she describes them, moving from a narrative, to a set piece of description, where the lives of the people are not voiced, but aggregated. Its telling the her description of the city is written in the same way. It makes it even clearer the Vietnamese are an after thought in any French plans, and the layer on layer of oppression dehumanizes everyone. So much for bringing civilization to new lands.
The Sea Wall is an impressive work and is a good start when looking for literature of colonial collapse.