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Marguerite Duras: The civilizing mission

Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Marguerite Duras
From The Sea Wall (1950)
Translated by Herma Briffault

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…He had been hired from the very first days of the project. His work consisted in clearing the ground, banking it up, paving it, and pounding it with wooden hand-pounders.

It would have been work like any other if at least eighty per cent of it had not been effected by convicts and supervised by native troops who, in ordinary times, were put in charge of the Colonial prisons. These convicts, these great “criminals” that, like so many mushrooms, had been discovered by the whites, were serving life sentences. Thus, they were made to work sixteen hours a day, chained together by fours, in close ranks. Each rank was supervised by a soldier dressed in the uniform of the “Native Militia for Natives,” chartered by the whites. Besides these convicts there were a few recruited laborers, such as the Corporal. If in the beginning there was some distinctions made between the convicts and the other hands, it gradually became attenuated except for the fact that the convicts were fed while the recruits were not. And finally the convicts had the advantage of being without their wives while the others had theirs with them, following in moving camps to the rear of the construction yards. These wives were eternally bearing children and were eternally starving. The militiamen saw to it that there were always labor recruits, in order to have women available, even when isolated in the forest and at a distance of many kilometers from any hamlet. Moreover, the women as well as the men and children died of malaria at a regular rate so that they could be replaced sufficiently often by the militiamen who, themselves, had a ration of quinine to assure their own survival and the maintenance of their authority which daily became more assured and more fantastic. This could effect a change of women with enough frequency, since the death of an enlisted man’s wife immediately lost that man his job.

…During this time, as did all the wives of the recruits, the Corporal’s wife gave birth to children, one after another, thanks to the virility of the militiamen. During all this time, too, there were the sixteen hours of road-pounding with heavy cudgels under a sun which deprived the recruits and convicts alike of all power of initiative, even the most natural. One only of her children had survived, the others having died of malaria or starvation. It was a girl, and the Corporal had kept her with them. How many times in six years had the Corporal’s wife borne a child in the midst of the forest, to the deafening sound of the road-pounders and the axes, the yells of the troops and the cracking of their whips? She could not now remember. What she did remember was that she had been kept constantly pregnant by the militiamen and that it was the Corporal who had got up at night to dig the little graves for the dead children.   

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