Maryse Condé´s latest novel, Les belles ténébreuses (Éditions Mercure de France, 2008), explores familiar themes from her corpus—identity, the search for origins, religion, death—in a superbly complex and enigmatic world. Éric Paquin calls Les belles ténébreuses a picaresque novel because of Condé´s sly, subtle humor and “the ironic gaze she turns towards the ills of our times.”
The novel follows the adventures and misadventures of Kassem, a man marked by incertitude, who, born in France of a Guadeloupean father and a Roumanian mother, has neither a precise sense of belonging nor solid foothold regarding national, racial, or ethnic identity. When there is a terrorist attack that destroys a hotel complex in Samssara, where he has immigrated, he is suddenly rendered jobless and suspect because the police profile him as an Arab. He is pulled off the street by the mysterious and fascinating Dr. Ramzi, a doctor and embalmer, who simultaneously becomes his savior and torturer. Nothing is fixed in this novel, where the plot weaves through hybrid worlds, moving between (an unidentified dictatorship in) Africa, France, and the United States, and where it is difficult to ascertain who are the heroes or antiheroes, the victims or the victimizers.
The mystery begins with the title. Les belles ténébreuses may mean “the mysterious ladies” or may allude to the tuberose, also called “queen of the night,” a fragrant, night-blooming flower that is embalmed to preserve its scent. Depending on the country, it is used for wedding or death ceremonies, and it is closely related to spirituality and/or the spirit world. Needless to say, for novel, as well as its title, the possibilities for significations, nuances, and references are endless.