A widow, who hopes to be able to support her family through farming, ends up acquiring a useless piece of land, unaware that one had to pay bribes to land-registry employees in order to be assigned good land.
The story takes place in the 1920s-not in today’s Cambodia where land disputes and incidents of land grabbing and official corruption occur all too often-and the corrupted employees are French colonial administrators. It is the plot of “The Sea Wall,” a novel written by French author Marguerite Duras and published in 1950.
The novel is inspired by the life of Duras in the 1920s when her mother, a former school teacher, tried, against all odds, to farm the land she had obtained near Prey Nop, in what is today’s Sihanoukville municipality.
Every year, during the month of October, France celebrates reading. And in Cambodia, the French Cultural Center is marking the occasion with a Duras festival based on her life in this country.
Activities include an exhibition of historical photos on Duras and Cambodia at the time; conferences on her work as a writer, play writer and film maker; and a screening program of her films and of other movies based on her books.
Duras, who passed away in 1995 at 81 years old, wrote 50 books, 15 plays and made 19 films, said Jean Mascolo, her only son who worked on her film productions for 15 years and is in Cambodia for the festival.
“She never made concessions-it was someone pure and tough, who worked day and night,” he said.
Duras received the Goncourt Award-France’s highest prize for literature-in 1984 for “The Lover,” a novel based on a two-year affair she had at 15 years old with a Chinese man when she was at boarding school in Saigon. The book has been translated in 35 languages. and was brought to the screen by French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, who is now shooting a feature film in Siem Reap.
Duras went back to France in 1932, never to return to Cambodia. Even though she spent just a few years here, it was much more than just an episode in her life, according to Marie-Christine de Navacelle, assistant director of the French Cultural Center.
Characters and Cambodia’s scenery described in “The Sea Wall” reoccur in Duras’ other works, she said. “The novel truly is the foundation of her work.”
The French Cultural Center tried to build the photo exhibition based on places and situations Duras depicts in “The Sea Wall,” and this proved quite difficult, de Navacelle said. Duras mixed facts and fiction to tell the story of the French widow and her children in Prey Nop, as novelists will do, she said.
Still, documents found at the National Archives confirm that Marie Donnadieu, Duras’ mother, did get a concession around 1928 and that she had to wait until 1937 to finally receive her ownership papers. In the book, Duras’ mother dies; in reality, she returned to France and was able to buy a manor in the countryside.
The French language title puts the story on the Pacific Ocean; in the book, Duras specifies that it was near the China Sea, but Prey Nop actually is located on the Gulf of Siam.
In the exhibition, early photos show her parents at the Saigon school, where they taught in the mid-1910s, with Duras in the background. There are photos of Phnom Penh-the Royal Palace and Hotel Le Royal in the 1920s, the National Library and the Central Post Office in the 1930s-because her parents were transferred here around 1919.
From Kampot province, there is a photo of Bokor in 1930 and photos of a small hotel in Kep. In addition to photos of Duras in the 1920s and 1930s, there is a 1927 road map of Cambodia, a $10 bill issued by the Indochina Bank in the 1920s, and maps showing the location of Marie Donnadieu’s land in Prey Nop.
While Duras strayed from facts in the story, the places and situations she described are real, said Solange Marguerite, French-aid consultant for the Ministry of Education. In French colonies, there were the wealthy and the others, called the “Little Whites,” she said.
In a video interview, which can be viewed at the exhibition, Duras said that the land-registry administration was corrupt; the staff at each level, from the small clerks to directors, took bribes, she said. The land assigned to Marie Donnadieu, who had been ignorant of the system, was under water half the year, Duras said. Her mother sunk 20 years of savings in that land and nearly died of anguish and anger, said Duras.
The pain and misery, the Cambodians’ extreme poverty intermingling with their children’s laughter are also real. What makes the land unproductive in the area is the salt that remains in the fields once the gulf waters recede, wrote Alain Gascuel in a 1999 Cambodge Nouveau article. The solution consists of drying the land and building polders, or small dams, to prevent salt water from returning, a method used in the Netherlands, he said.
The first polders were built by the French administration in the 1940s to protect about 10,000 hectares from the gulf, Gascuel wrote. Neglected for decades, a new set of polders were erected during the Pol Pot regime.
Finally, in January 1998, the French government launched a new polder project, Gascuel said. About 6,000 families live on the 11,000 hectares that will be protected, he said. The project now is near completion.
In the book, Marie Donnadieu tries to build her own polders, and fails miserably. In the meantime, she battles land-registry inspectors who threaten to take the land away from her because nothing is growing in her field.
As a cinematographer, Duras did not know the usual techniques, so she invented and innovated, said Mascolo. For example in India Song, which is a love story taking place in India in the 1930s, no actor ever speaks on the screen—they all keep their mouths closed—he said.
This may have served two purposes, said Dominique Noguez, a writer and a film and literary critique who gave a conference on Duras on Oct 10. This was a novel way of showing that events on the screen had taken place in the past, he said. Also, Duras used a radio recording of India Song as sound track for the film, which must have reduced production costs, Noguez said.
She might have done films but above all, she was a writer, and a writer who managed to create a world in her work, he said.
The photo exhibition will continue until mid-November; her films are shown through October.