|A young Marguerite Duras|
The Vice Consul (1965)
by Marguerite Duras
I have a complicated relationship with the European colonial experience in the 19th and 20th century. As a democratic American citizen, I'm of course appalled. As a vacationing citizen of the world, the "colonial experience" is a short-hand for an appealing vacation, i.e. luxurious restored mansions, plentiful staff on hand to cater to your whims, As a student of 20th century history, I'm appalled by the vacationing citizen of the world, who views European colonialism through an aesthetic gaze, instead of confronting the terrible realities of colonialism.
But honestly, besides learning the story of the oppressed, what can you do? Make sure one vacations where the locals aren't being horribly exploited, but beyond that, the European colonial experience is in the past, and the only way to access it is through the literature of 20th century Europe. Marguerite Duras drew heavily on her Asian experiences in her oeuvre. The Vice Consul is set in India, not Vietnam and the characters are mostly English, though the Vice Consul and his whore wife are French.
Unlike her other books on the 1001 Books list, the sex in The Vice Consul stays in the background- no explicit fondling of girl-flesh to be had here. Duras interweaves the story of a disgraced Cambodian beggar woman into the more conventional tale of bored European colonials and their whispered about sex capades. The portion dealing with the Cambodian beggar is the first time I can remember a European writer tackling the experience of a member of the Asian peasantry.