[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Justin Torres (The New York Times) reviews Maryse Condé’s recently translated novels The Belle Créole (trans. Nicole Simek) and The Wondrous Life of Ivan and Ivana (trans. Richard Philcox). In his insightful review, Torres concludes “One is never on steady ground with Condé; she is not an ideologue, and hers is not the kind of liberal, safe, down-the-line morality that leaves the reader unimplicated.” So true…
For the past half century, Maryse Condé has been chronicling the black diaspora in novels that are rollicking and scandalous, that examine gender and culture, class and religion, African and Caribbean society. She performs a kind of alchemic conversion from abstract theories of power to very human lusts and appetites, where costs are paid in the flesh.
One of the hallmarks of her genius is to approach her themes from unexpected subject positions, like the enslaved woman who faces a witchcraft trial in “I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem.” Condé’s multigenerational family saga “Segu,” like “Anna Karenina” or “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” is a metonym for a time and a people — in this case a declining empire in Mali amid the rise of Islam and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Condé was born and raised in Guadeloupe, an unsovereign Caribbean nation where colonialism largely persists in modern form, much to the detriment of the inhabitants, but where the alternative — independence from France — is perceived by the majority as riskier still. As a young woman, Condé lived in several West African countries, often drawing the ire of governments for her outspoken criticism, and eventually moved to Paris to attend the Sorbonne. Later she taught at American universities. Her work — 16 novels, as well as plays and short stories — is often as peripatetic, as global, as her own life.
In 2018, Condé was awarded the first and only New Academy Prize in Literature, nicknamed the “Alternative Nobel.” It was the year that sexual assault and corruption led to a crisis of validity for the Swedish Academy, and the awarding of the world’s most prestigious literary honor was postponed. A group of librarians established the New Academy Prize as a one-time stopgap, and Condé was voted the winner from a small group of illustrious finalists.
The scandal — in which sexual assault exposes the Eurocentrism, misogyny and cronyism undergirding our notions of “prestige,” and in which kingmakers are shown to be human, fallible, implicated — might itself be something out of a Condé novel. Few writers are as skilled at illustrating the ways in which personal abuses of power are not just the result but the praxis of cultural domination.
Scandal is at the center of two of Condé’s newly translated novels, both of which show her at her signature best: offering complex, polyphonic and ultimately shattering stories whose provocations linger long after their final pages.
“The Belle Créole,” first published in 2001, is set in Guadeloupe, where all is not well. In the decade after the devastation of Hurricane Hugo, neocolonial mismanagement, labor strikes and staggering youth unemployment have shaken the foundations of society. The book opens in a packed courtroom, the moment after a jury has acquitted Dieudonné Sabrina, our protagonist, of the murder of his lover.
Everyone present, including the jury, knows he has indeed killed the woman. But Loraine, his lover, was a middle-aged bekée — a wealthy white Creole descendant of colonial plantation owners. (The use of Antillean Creole versus “French-French” is highly politicized on the island, a point made clear in this skillful translation.) Dieudonné’s lawyer, rather than deny the facts, has built his defense on manipulating the frustrations of the island’s black majority. He has “put the whole of society on trial, invoking colonial domination and its trail of evils.”
The narrative takes place in less than 24 hours, from the afternoon after Dieudonné’s acquittal to his long night of searching, unsuccessfully, for refuge. What he needs is a moment’s respite, to grieve and atone, to understand the magnitude of both his crime and deliverance from punishment. He has been but a minor character in his own murder trial. He knows something larger has played out, something symbolic, which required his actions, his youth, his victim’s whiteness, but nothing of his actual self. “A feeling was starting to blossom within him that resembled happiness,” Condé writes. “He was free. But another thought instantly besieged him. Free? That meant what? Free to do what?”
Dieudonné’s harrowing plight, then, is his relegation to the symbolic. He is a brute killer, a thug, a folk hero and a victim of oppression all at once; his trial is all over the papers, the narrative stolen from his murderous, loving hands and twisted to the needs of others. As the book progresses, filtering Dieudonné and his crime again and again through characters major and minor, we slip further from understanding him.
What emerges instead is a fascinating cross section of Guadeloupean society. Dieudonné’s absentee father, a powerful African politician; the teenage Haitian refugee who tries to cleanse Dieudonné with Voodoo; Boris, the homeless communist poet turned important governmental figure; the white American tourist-gone-native who has given birth to Dieudonné’s child. One minor character, the wife of a politician, catches a news item on Dieudonné’s acquittal and reflects: “He might have been one of her little brothers or, God forbid, one of her sons who had gone astray. At the same time, Loraine was a woman, and even though she was a bekée, this put her in the interminable list of victims of almighty male power. Women beaten, women raped, women deceived.” The book is filled with these kinds of insights, at once everyday and prophetic.
“The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana” (2017), one of many works wryly rendered in English by Condé’s translator husband, was written in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris and takes on the feedback loop of global inequity and radicalization. The conceit is deceptively straightforward: Ivan and Ivana are twins born to a single Guadeloupean mother, and as they grow up they adore each other above all else in the world. In fact, their bond is so strong that it tips over into incestuous passions they must be vigilant not to consummate. Yet despite their closeness, they grow to be as different as night and day, or in their case, terrorist and police hero.
As teenagers, the pair must leave the island if they hope to find work and secure any kind of future, but rather than heading to Paris, the natural point of emigration for Guadeloupean youth, the twins are shipped to Mali, to live with their estranged father in his native land. There Ivan is secured a job in the national militia, and Ivana is put to work in an orphanage for the children of those killed in the recent war. Ivan converts to Islam, at first mostly just to fit in, but is quickly and forcibly recruited to engage in radical jihad. Both make it to Paris, where Ivana joins the police force and is celebrated for her wisdom, beauty and commitment. Ultimately, Ivan and Ivana find themselves as minor actors on opposing sides of ongoing global violence.
The book is a reflection on the dangers of binary thinking, and the Wilde line “Each man kills the thing he loves” serves as a kind of refrain for the mutually destructive passions between West and East, black and white, purist and pervert. The narrator continuously wonders when, exactly, Ivan became radicalized. The potential causes are perplexing and surprising, like the assassination, by antiterrorism forces, of a white Malian couple who offered Ivan shelter and formed a ménage à trois with him.
“All the horror of the world was revealed to him,” Condé writes. “The world seemed to be divided into two camps: the West and their lackeys, and the rest. The former claim they are victims and attacked for no reason as they have done no harm and are fervent defenders of free speech, every type of gender … and adoption of children by homosexuals. In actual fact, this is not true. Both camps are playing games of massacre and each is as savage and implacable as the other.”
One is never on steady ground with Condé; she is not an ideologue, and hers is not the kind of liberal, safe, down-the-line morality that leaves the reader unimplicated.
Justin Torres is the author of “We the Animals.”
THE BELLE CRÉOLE
By Maryse Condé
Translated by Nicole Simek
202 pp. University of Virginia Press. Paper, $21.95.
THE WONDROUS AND TRAGIC LIFE OF IVAN AND IVANA
By Maryse Condé
Translated by Richard Philcox
266 pp. World Editions. Paper, $16.99.
Also read, “The Reverberations of Time: A Conversation with Nicole Simek,” by
Jocelyn Frelier, Los Angeles Review of Books, April 28, 2020