Friday, 27 September 2013

Book Review: The Sailor from Gibraltar by Marguerite Duras is not a sovereign country, I know, but unarguably the densely populated pene-exclave of the United Kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula deserves to be included in my list, if only for its geographical importance as the Gate to the Mediterranean Sea. Several authors have chosen Gibraltar as a setting for their works. Gil Baltrar by Jules Verne, The Innocent Abroad by Mark Twain and Scruffy by Paul Gallico are only three of the classics which I'd like to mention here. However, for my last review of My Mediterranean Reading Summer 2013 I chose a novel which has Gibraltar in its title, but follows its protagonists travelling onboard a yacht called Gibraltar and searching for a mysterious man from Gibraltar rather than being set in the town. The novel is The Sailor from Gibraltar by Marguerite Duras.

The writer and film director Marguerite Duras was born as Marguerite Donnadieu in Gia-Dinh close to Saigon, Vietnam (then French Indochina), in April 1914. After school she went to Paris, France, for her law studies which she finished in 1936. During World War II she worked for the French Resistance as a spy and in 1943 her first novel Les Impudents (The Impudent) was published under the pseudonym Marguerite Duras which she continued to use all her life. The Sea Wall (Un barrage contre le Pacifique) made her fame in 1950. The Sailor from Gibraltar (Le Marin de Gibraltar) was her fourth novel and came out two years later. Others of her important literary works are Hiroshima mon amour (1960), The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein (Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein: 1964), India Song (1976), Moderato Cantabile (1977), Savannah Bay (1982), The Lover (L’amant: 1984), The North China Lover (L'Amant de la Chine du Nord: 1991, and Writing (Écrire: 1993). Marguerite Duras died from throat cancer in Paris in March 1996.

The story of The Sailor from Gibraltar begins on a hot day in August 1947. The nameless narrator and his always optimistic as well as compliant fiancée Jacqueline are on holidays in Italy. A stonemason gives them a ride from Pisa to Florence on his truck and starts a conversation with the narrator who by and by reveals himself as a man fed up with virtually all aspects of his life. For eight years he has been copying birth and death certificates in the Colonial Ministry although he hates his job and loathes his colleagues. For two years he has been together with Jacqueline and it seems natural to him that eventually they’ll get married. The stonemason encourages him to give up his job and be happy. He invites him to come to Rocca, a village at the seaside, and enjoy life, but the narrator refuses. The scorching heat in Florence makes him listless and thoughtful. Lazing in a café while his fiancée roams the city the narrator begins to reconsider his relationship with Jacqueline and he fully realizes that he doesn’t love her. The couple moves on to Rocca to visit the stonemason and the narrator finally takes his life into his own hands. To begin with he breaks up with Jacqueline. Then he meets the wealthy and beautiful widow Anna who is staying onboard her yacht, the Gibraltar, anchored off the Tuscan coast. It is said that she has been travelling the world for years in search of the man she loves, a murderer on the run whom Anna simply calls the sailor from Gibraltar. The narrator falls for the enigmatic American and becomes her lover. He wants to be with her and asks her to take her onboard as a member of the crew which implies that he gives up his job at the Colonial Ministry in Paris. Both know that it can only be a temporary affair which will end when they find the sailor from Gibraltar and yet he’s ready to sacrifice everything. They cruise the Mediterranean Sea and then move on to the Atlantic Ocean stopping by Tanger in Morocco, Abidjan in Ivory Coast, and Leopoldville, now Kinshasa in Zaire. They even venture into the jungles of the Congo, but the mysterious sailor from Gibraltar is always one step ahead of them.

The plot of The Sailor from Gibraltar is simple and devised into two parts. The shorter first part is dedicated to the narrator, his personal history and everything that leads to the break-up with his fiancée. The much longer second part of the novel is widely dominated by a monotonous travel onboard the yacht with interludes of picturesque landscapes and buzzing life in different harbours. In fact, there isn’t much going on in this novel. Marguerite Duras is more interested in the characters of the narrator and Anna, two lonely creatures running after happiness and love, than in constructing an intricate and thrilling story. The travel serves just as the perfect metaphor for life itself. The yearning of the protagonists gives room for many philosophical observations and conversations, and yet, as often in real life much remains unsaid and hazy between the two. The writer’s language and style are easy to follow. At the same time they are poetic and full of symbolism which is quite obvious in some cases and hidden in others.

Some may find The Sailor from Gibraltar by Marguerite Duras boring, while others will love it like I did. Novels with a philosophical turn use to be very much in my line and I didn’t miss the action at all. My judgement: Highly recommended.


  1. This book sounds good...thanks for the review.

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  2. I haven't read that Duras. Style-wise is it more like L'amant or like Le ravissement de Lol V Stein?
    I'm not a fan of her "modernist" (I'm not sure it's the right word) side of her work.

    From her, I highly recommend La douleur.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Emma!

      It's true that I portrayed Marguerite Duras here on my blog (because I think that she had a very interesting life), but to be truthfully, I haven't yet read any other novel than 'The Sailor from Gibraltar'. So I can't tell you, if her style changed or is the same as in the two famous works which you cited. 'Moderato Cantabile' and 'L'amant' are on my TBR (some time) list, though. Besides, the French edition wasn't available through my usual channels (even the German edition was difficult to get) and so it's difficult for me to judge, anyways... usually, I mention it when I read a book in another than the original language, this time, however, I seem to have forgotten. In my opinion it's inevitable that a translator introduces her/his personal style however hard s/he may try not to, don't you think?

    2. I've read a few of her books. I loved L'amant.

      The translator is important, sure. But she has a more "classic" style for books like Barrage contre le Pacifique or L'amant and a more "experimental" one for L'amour or Moderato cantabile.

      I put links to two independant French bookstores that deliver books in Austria. If that can help...

    3. So I'll see the differences of style when I read 'L'Amant' and 'Moderato cantabile'.

      Thanks for the links to French online bookshops. I think that searching for certain books on google I've been on their sites already... but I don't buy online. Even if I order books on the internet, I always have them delivered to a brick-and-mortar shop. I'm a bit peculiar there ;-)

  3. Thank you for reviewing this. I read it years ago and remember loving it enough to venture into Le Ravissement de Lol V Stein, which I couldn't come to terms with, no matter how many times I attempted re-reading it. I think I prefer the first part more, because I wonder why many writers develop this fantasy of the holidays as triggers for abandoning the familiar, taking risks and venturing into the unknown... only to find out that you're chasing after some fictitious objective. I also love the idea that "nothing" pushed the unnamed narrator forward just as probably "nothing" would have kept him stationary; as I recall his break-up with Jacqueline was not at all logical much as his request to be taken on-board as a crew member, but I suppose we fall into these traps regularly in our lives.

    1. Well, I'll see when I'll pick L'Amant and Moderato cantabile for reading which won't be any time soon. Thanks for your comment! Unexpectedly I didn't get a chance to go online this week, so the moderation and publishing took a while ;-)

  4. I have not yet read Duras. I have Lol V Stein on my 1964 list. I am looking forward to making her acquaintance. Thank you for listing her books. I have added them to my lists. As far as this one goes, I also like novels with philosophizing in them.


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