By Marguerite Duras
Translated from the French by Barbara Bray
117 pages
New York: Pantheon Books, 1968 (originally).
ISBN # 0-394-75022-5

Comments of Bob Corbett
September 2002

A woman has been murdered in a small village in France in 1966. The body was then cut up onto pieces, and pieces, except for the head, deposited in passing freight train cars. Within days after the murder a woman confesses in a local café and was taken off to jail. This is revealed to us in the very first pages, by means of a taped interview with Robert Lamy, proprietor of the Café Barto where the confession occurred. An unnamed man is writing a book about the murder, and especially the murderer, Claire Bousquet, and is collecting data by means of these tape-recorded interviews.

The novel consists of three interviews, a relatively short on with Lamy, who is the most objective of the three and provides us with the basic details. The second, and nearly ½ the remaining text, is with Pierre Lannes, husband of Claire, the confessed murderer. The last is with Claire herself.

It is the intent of the interviewer to figure out exactly who Claire is and why she committed this murder. The brilliance of Duras’ novel is the careful and slow revealing of more and more details of Claire, Pierre, the murder victim -- Claire’s deaf, mute cousin, Marie-Therese Bousquet, the Italian laborer Alfonso, an unnamed police officer with whom Claire had been in love many years ago, and the general situation of life in the village of Viorne.

Nothing much more of the “story” of the murder is really learned in these interviews, but much is revealed of the lives of the principals, particularly Claire and Pierre. Duras reveals herself as an astute observer and describer of human affairs with deep insight into the human mind and being.

Pierre has been married to Claire for more than 20 years and not only doesn’t much care for her, but is convinced she is going mad and has plans afoot to put her into an institution. He is astonishingly aloof from her situation, seeming not to care at all and rather relieved that now he doesn’t have to do anything himself to be rid of her. I guess what I found so startling is that he continued to live with her so very long with so little care or connection.

Claire does indeed seem to be mad. She’s not very clear herself as to why she killed Marie-Therese, and seems not to have the slightest regret, nor much concern about her future in prison. Not much will change for her in many ways. She lived in their cottage, spending much time in the garden with nearly nightly trips with Pierre to Café Balto. Life in prison will not really be much different.

There’s little more to say of “story.” What is worth reading is the probing into these lives, the tiny details, the attitudes, the puzzles of what sorts of world views and dreams and hopes stand behind the very real characters whom Duras reveals with such sensitivity and care.

The title, untranslated from the French, is left in the French since it is a misspelling Claire made in a letter of “la menthe anglaise,” her favorite plant in the garden, English mint. Instead she had written what is effectively “the English (woman) lover”. However, I had the feeling, given the title and the central place of this plant in Claire’s love of her garden, and that plant in particular, that much more hangs on the title. Whatever it is it eluded me!

This is the third novel I’ve read in the past couple of years which were ostensibly murder stories, but actually much more serious literature and in which the novel is about someone writing about the murder after the fact and after it was no longer a “mystery.” Two of the three, this one and ISOLINA by Dacia Maraini, have the sub-theme of a body being cut up and the head missing thus presenting some problems with identification. The third was, on my view, the best of the three is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s CHRONICLE OF A DETH FORETOLD. I wonder if there are more with this particular feature of being about books being written about murders after the murder itself has been solved. Surely this is a curious and limited genre! While Marguerite Duras is more famous for her beautiful, touching and erotic novel, The Lover, her memoir, The War, and her screenplay, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, this murder story is a quick but rewarding and intriguing read.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu