You’re gonna walk backwards through the room
The second book in Marguerite Duras’s India cycle, The Vice-Consul finds the landscape switching to Calcutta and the focus shifting to Anne-Marie Stretter, a woman who many will remember as the sexy cougar who stole Michael Richardson’s heart in The Ravishing of Lol Stein. In this land of inescapable heat, Stretter finds herself surrounded on all sides by an incredibly damaged cast of characters that include her French Ambassador husband, Richardson (his last name inexplicably shortened here to Richards) the disgraced Vice-Consul of Lahore, and an insane Cambodian beggar woman who lives among a homeless colony of lepers.
The novel opens on the beggar as a penniless and pregnant teenager. Cast out of her childhood home, Duras’ mercilessly, in unflinching detail, describes each of the hardships the girl must endure in order to keep both herself and her unborn baby alive for another day. True to form however, it quickly becomes apparent that all may not be what it seems.
Just like in the engrossing Lol, it appears as if Duras is once again toying with the perception of events, for the beggar’s past it turns out is not being told by her, but is instead revealed to be the invention of a writer named Peter Morgan. Duras the writer has gone an invented an author of her own who will go on to pen a tale of his own, which is of course ultimately of her own creation as well.
Questions immediately come to mind: Does this beggar woman actually exist? Is she really insane? Was she ever really pregnant? Morgan’s story does seem somewhat plausible…
It’s not purposefully sinister, this way Duras skillfully plays with language and uses it to her advantage to keep the reader enraptured and off balance as they travel through her hallucinatory, feverous dream-like world, but it does feel a bit menacing at times all the same. With brisk sentences she commands a sense of urgency over the proceedings. The novel is littered with short, forceful bursts describing the beggar’s journey such as:
While Morgan works overtime to find a way to weave a younger Stetter into his narrative of the beggar woman’s life, the recently suspended Vice-Consul of Lahore – a man who finds himself in Calcutta waiting for judgment over his unsettling crimes to ultimately be passed down by the powers that be – falls head over heels in love with her stunning present day beauty. But with rumors swirling about what really happened in Lahore and why, the question becomes: will Stretter take a risk and invite him into her ever increasing inner circle of lovers or will she spurn his advances in favor of seeking satisfaction elsewhere?
Unsurprisingly, the answer arrives in a package that once again relies on the perception of third parties to define its subjects. The opinions of The Vice-Consul are defined by a Secretary who doesn’t hold him in high regard and as a result the details of what really happened in Lahore keep changing. Even Stretter herself becomes the victim of the many judgments cast upon her by the men and woman of her political social circle. Very few people exercise a sense of control over their own narrative in The Vice-Consul, and as a result it becomes increasingly difficult to ascertain the truth behind any given situation.
The beauty of The Vice-Consul lies in this constant reminder that our realities are forever being shaped and reshaped by the perceptions of those around us. Passion and suffering will collide, lives will be defined and then redefined, truths will become falsehoods. Yet through all of these dizzying changes Duras manages to hold the reader’s strict attention and forces them to be a willing participant in the proceedings. This isn’t a novel you read, it’s one that you experience, and like the very best moments of any life, new truths will continue to slowly reveal themselves long after the last page has turned.
By Marguerite Duras
Translated from the French by Eileen Ellenbogen