Victoire: My Mother’s Mother by Maryse Condé tr. Richard Philcox

Maryse Condé is the author I discovered on the Man Booker International long list, the author that stood out for me, even if she didn’t win the prize. Since discovering her, I have read and reviewed the book she recommended for those wishing to discover her work, Tales From the Heart: True Stories From my Childhoodvignettes of her life growing up as the youngest and 8th child of a civil servant (who had been a school principal when her mother married him) and school teacher in a black bourgeoise family.

I decide to follow this up with another tale Victoire: My Mother’s Mother, though publishers label it as fiction, it is based on the life and facts of her grandmother. Victoire was an illiterate, white skinned woman she never met, who worked as a highly reputable cook for a white Creole family, the Walbergs, a connection that her mother Jeanne, though raised, supported and educated by this family, appeared to reject.

VictoireMaryse Condé wrote this account in a desire to learn more of her family history, a quest that began by researching the life of Victoire Elodie Quidal, speaking to a lot of people and a project that would take three years to complete.

When she questioned her mother Jeanne, a woman with no discernible palate, incapable of boiling an egg, she was shocked to learn her grandmother had been a cook.

‘And she didn’t teach you anything, not even one recipe?’ She continued without answering the question. ‘She first worked in Grand Bourg for the Jovials, some relatives of ours. That ended badly. Very badly. Then …then she migrated to La Pointe and hired out her services to the Walbergs, a family of white Creoles, right up until she died.’

Maryse wanted answers, but that was as much as her mother would share, they never resumed the conversation, the years passed by, in a kind of chaos, however that conversation never left her curious mind and her grandmother began to seep into her imagination.

Sometimes I would wake up at night and see her sitting in a corner of the room, like a reproach, so different to what I had become.

‘What are you doing running around from Segu to Japan to South Africa? What’s the point of all these travels? Can’t you realise that the only journey that counts is discovering your inner self? That’s the only thing that matters. What are you waiting for to take an interest in me?’ she seemed to be telling me.

Victoire’s mother Eliette was a twin who died in childbirth at the age of fourteen. More than the shock of her pregnancy and sudden death, was the appearance of a child with clear eyes and pink skin. No one was aware of her having crossed paths with a white man, there were no whites in La Trielle where she lived except priests and at one point a garrison of soldiers, who’d been training in the area, before being despatched back to France.

Eliette’s mother Caldonia raised Victoire and became close to her, when most people were wary of her with her too white skin and transparent eyes. The only education she received was religious and at the age of 10, the Jovial’s requested she come and work for them in the kitchen. Given only the thankless tasks, she observed the others and began to acquire the culinary skills she would become so well-known for.

Obtaining a position as cook for the Dulieu-Beaufort family was a turning point in her life, perhaps even more so than finding herself pregnant at 16-years-old, for in this family she would meet her lifelong friend Anne-Marie, her same age, outraged at having been married off to Boniface Walberg, Victoire’s future employers and the beginning of a mysterious and enduring relationship, one that set people talking and would be seen by her daughter Jeanne (Maryse’s mother) with utmost disapproval.

Apart from a brief period when Victoire fell in love with another, causing a period of separation from her daughter, and a significant turning point in their relationship, she would stay loyal to the Walberg’s all her life. Though she could neither read or write, she accepted her life, despite suffering the disapproval of her unforgiving daughter Jeanne, who would obtain an excellent education and position, marry a man twenty years her senior, removing all risk of insecurity that she’d observed in her mother and previous generations, determined to avoid a similar fate.

In an interview with Megan Doll, in Bookslut Maryse Condé explains her desire to write about her grandmother:

Maryse Condé‘The story is, of course, about my grandmother but the real problem was my mother. I lost my mother when I was very young — fourteen and a half. And during the short time that I knew her I could never understand her. She was a very complex character. Some people — most people, the majority of people — disliked her. They believed she was too arrogant, too choleric. But we knew at home that she was the most sensitive person and I could not understand that contradiction between the way she looked and the way she actually was. So I tried to understand as I grew up and I discovered that it was because of a big problem with her own mother. She seems to have failed; she had the feeling that she was not a good, dutiful daughter. I had to understand the grandmother and the relationship between my mother, Jeanne, and her mother, Victoire, to understand who Jeanne was, why she was the way she was, and at the same time understand myself.’

Condé also finds a connection between her and Victoire through their creativity, her grandmother’s through her renowned cuisine, Condé’s through her writing. At times she almost appears to channel her grandmother, as she senses what she may have been thinking or why she reacted in a certain way,  connecting with this mysterious woman who was so different to the mother she knew, a woman equally misunderstood by the community around her.

This was the perfect follow-up to Tales of the Heart and an intriguing look into the impact of circumstances of birth of three generations of women, how the past constantly threatens and can mock one’s position in the present, somewhat explaining Jeanne’s instinct to distance herself from her illiterate mother while fulfilling her ambitions and then her guilt at having treated her mother badly, when she only wanted the best for her.

The two books I have read were translated from French into English.

18 thoughts on “Victoire: My Mother’s Mother by Maryse Condé tr. Richard Philcox

    • They are as interesting as novels Ali and all the more so for being based on true stories. It’s a little sad that this format for the Man Booker International has disappeared now, 2015 the last year that there will be a long list of authors based on their life works, from 2016 they’ll be using the #IFFP format, one book, published in English in the rpevious publishing year, we won’t get that long historical focus.

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    • It is Steph, I found the interview quite poignant having finished the book and amazing that Maryse Condé managed to access so much information. I loved too what she said here about research and memory:

      …people will tell you that in places like the Caribbean, West Africa and so on, we have two distinct elements. We have history which is written in books about the white people — how they came to Guadeloupe, how they colonized Guadeloupe, how they became the masters of Guadeloupe — and you have memory, which is the actual facts of the people of Guadeloupe and Martinique — the way they lived, the way they suffered, the way they enjoyed life. We are trained to rely more on our memories and the memories of people around us than on books.

      Her book is all the richer for all those interviews she did, talking to people about their memories of the past.

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  1. “She wanted answers”. Don’t we all want to know if we share physical and personality traits with people in or family? Where do characteristics like ‘determination, discipline’ come from if your parents aren’t like you? Wonderful review about Condé who knew the roots nourish the branches….and she wanted to know how that occured.

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    • So true for many of us Nancy, I’m defintiely one of those who wants to understand the links we have with those who came before us, I love that #MaryseCondé was able to talk to people and do her research and come to understand her mother and grandmother better than she had from the 14 years she had when her own mother was still alive, especially being the youngest of 8 children, she had the shortest time with them all and the shortest memory, but the greatest desire to fill in the gaps and widen her knowledge.

      I’m looking forward to reading Segu next, which is when she sets off to discover her conenction or otherwise with Africa, a past never mentioned by her family and one that will be interesting for her to encounter, even if in the form of a novel.

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      • When you lose a parent when you are young….. his or her entire existence is a blur. Your eye captures an outline in a photo but your brain doesn’t know what to do with it. I can imagine how gratifying it could be to finally bring them, your loved ones, into focus.

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  4. What a fascinating review about a fascinating book and such fascinating heartbreaking people.
    I’m grateful for you giving us the essence of the moving poignant story you tell, as I Know I will never find the book here….but what you have shared will reverberate,in my memory.

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    • Maybe in a library, I almost feel like writing a post about the libraries I am discovering who are ridding themselves of their gems, as I become the new owner of for example Jamaica Kincaid’s most recent novel, one that was published (in 2013) after an absence of 10 years, a 1st edition hardback, nicely covered, via the Rum River Library endorsed with its big black stamp D I S C A R D E D.

      My beautiful first edition hardback library discard of Victoire hailed from the Wilkinson Library, Telluride which I had to look up to see that that’s in Colorado!

      I think I shall have to become a library Valerie, to rescue these beautiful books!

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