The Novel That Took Marguerite Duras to the Edge of Fiction and Sanity

A novel so radical even its author struggled to understand it.

abahnsabanadavidTo the extent that she is familiar to Americans, Marguerite Duras is known for Hiroshima mon amour, the 1959 screenplay she wrote for Alain Resnais. Among its other accomplishments, that film has the distinction of being the anti-singularity of modern cinematic language, an originary limit point that acknowledges how the immense weight of an immediate and incomprehensibly violent past has broken the time of the present and preemptively attacked the future. One would have thought that Duras’ contribution, which did earn her an Oscar nomination, would have hardened her legacy in this country. But her tendency, in her near-perfect later films and fiction, to work at the edge of narrative, along with a basic American negligence — an irony given that American postmodern writers would co-opt her techniques to weakened effect — has obscured her importance. The situation is compounded in the literary present, which joins supposedly disparate political camps in their frenzy for positive identification. Duras instead wrote identification slantwise; she wasn’t offering an anti-self so much as a refusal to offer. She isn’t Yeats; she’s Duras.

It’s with interested accrued that her “most unreadable, most obscure book,” according to one biographer, has just been published by Open Letter and translated by Kazim Ali. The novel, Abahn Sabana David (1970), has also been called an “apocalyptic political thriller” and cited as an example of what Duras’ herself referred to as “an inner scream of refusal.” It is intense, elliptical, and haunting; and it lives somewhere near the blood-drained edge of the nouveau roman, a genre she is sometimes over-associated with. It’s also pitched against every comfort of contemporary fiction.

The main characters of Abahn Sabana David are in the title. The plot itself is light — it appears to “move deathward” before it radically doesn’t — and the sense of space derives from Beckett and Sartre, which is to say it’s confined and hellish. (Although Duras has a way of eliminating space at will.) It takes place at night (“Night comes. And the cold.”) in a small house, where Sabana and David have arrived “to watch” a man named Abahn, whom they call “the Jew,” until morning. When day breaks, Abahn is to be killed by Gringo, a local party leader in Staadt. Meanwhile, David is carrying a gun.

Over the course of the evening, Sabana and Abahn discuss radical politics, the death camps, the nature of Gringo and his party, and, most importantly, the radical, messianic figure of the Jew. For most of this time, David sleeps and dreams aloud, and his dreams are influenced by Abahn’s remarks. At one point, another man named Abahn arrives, and, from here, identities begin to split and merge. Still, a few things remain clear. David is a stonemason and a committed party member. Sabana acts as his wife and mother. And Abahn will be killed because his status as “the Jew” means he is dangerous to the party. His presence evokes discord and dissent, especially within the figure of David:

“You have to try anyway,” says the Jew to David.

David starts to attention.

“What?”

“To move toward communism,” says the Jew.

“To where?” David smiles as if it were a joke. The Jews smile too.

“To where we don’t know,” says Abahn. “You don’t know.”

The Jew smiles, at David, at everyone.

“You have to try not to create it,” says the Jew.

Unthinking, David strokes his gun. Having found it again, he yanks his hand back as if burned.

“To arrive in the forest,” says Abahn.

“Wild,” says the Jew.

“The forest,” David repeats.

They fall silent. David is still looking at them. They look elsewhere.

“You came to destroy our unity,” says David. His voice is dull, flat. Trembling.

As much as a single passage could be, this exchange between David and Abahn is representative of the novel: it contains quick, precise dialogue that is at once pointed, imagistic, yet oblique. But you don’t have to know that Duras was, when she wrote the novel, possessed by the symbolic radicality of “the Jew” (in the wake of the Holocaust and the Soviet labor camps) to catch that she’s negotiating against the party here. The Jew, who sometimes seems like the future of David, is advocating for a communal politics that is (“You have to try not to create it”) rather than prescribed by the party. And it’s too much for David, the stonemason, to bear.

There is one biographical note that can guide readers into Abahn Sabana David. The novel is dedicated to two figures: the staunchly anti-fascist Maurice Blanchot, and Duras’ ex-husband, Robert Antelme, who survived Buchenwald and Dachau. When Antelme returned from the camps, Duras helped nurse him back to health, after which they divorced as friends. Once a party member, Antelme quit when learned about the Soviet labor camps.

The historical memory of the Soviet camps bears on Abahn Sabana David in a way that recalls the historical effect of atomic violence on the form of Hiroshima mon amour. Here identification is unstable, and it may disconcert the contemporary reader to know that Duras was unsure of the novel’s meaning. Her biographer, Laura Adler, writes that “[Duras] herself admitted that having reread it, she did not understand it,” yet, “to the end of her days, she fiercely protected the book from critics and refused to explain herself. It had exhausted her; grappling with the text had threatened her mentally and drained her physically.” An exhausted, inner scream of refusal, fixed at the limit of narrative. Or, as Abahn says of his tattoo, which can’t be read by those who would ensure his death: “It’s the word: NO.”