An Illiterate in Paris

By Duras, Marguerite | UNESCO Courier, May-June 1986 | Go to article overview

An Illiterate in Paris


Duras, Marguerite, UNESCO Courier


An illiterate in Paris

In countries where free and compulsory education has been applied for generations, Illiteracy is no national problem. Yet in all countries, even the most advanced, a small residue remains of adults who, for one reason or another, have never learned to read or write. What is the position of the few who have somehow slipped through the network of compulsory education? What does it mean to be an adult illiterate in a society where life is organized on the assumption that everybody can read and write? The French writer Marguerite Duras decided to find out and managed to discover a middle-aged woman factory worker living at Romainville, a suburb of Paris, who could neither read nor write. The answers she gives in the Interview published below reveal the poignant drama of an illiterate person living in a modern capital and the tragedy of being cut off from written communication.

Are there any words which you can recognize even though you cannot read them?

Yes, three words. The names of the two Underground stations on the line I take every day: "Lilas' and "chatelet'--and my maiden name.

Could you pick them out from a group of other words?

I could recognize them from about a dozen others, I think.

What do they look like to you . . . like drawings?

Yes, like pictures, if you want. "Lilas' is a tall word--it's almost as tall as it is wide--and it's pretty. The word "Chatelet' is too long, and it's not so pretty. When you see it, you know it's not the same as the word "Lilas'.

When you tried to learn to read, did it seem difficult to you?

You can't imagine what it's like. It's terrible

Can you give me an idea of what you mean exactly?

I don't really know. Maybe because everything is so . . . so small. I'm sorry, I'm not very good at explaining things.

It must be quite a difficult thing for you to live in a city like Paris and to get around from one place to another without being able to read.

Oh, if you've got a tongue in your head you can get anywhere you want.

How do you manage exactly?

Well, I do a lot of asking. And then I use my head. It's funny how quick you pick up things and remember what you see. Much quicker than other people. It's like a blind person. There are places where you know where you are. Then, I ask people.

Do you have to stop and ask your way often?

Oh, about ten times when I come into Paris from Romainville on an errand or something. There are all those Underground station names. …

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