The Story of the Cannibal Woman by Maryse Condé, tr. Richard Philcox #WITMonth

Although she recommends you start with her book of essays Tales from The Heart: True Stories from My Childhood about growing up the youngest of eight children in a black bourgeois family in Guadeloupe, Maryse Condé cited The Story of the Cannibal Woman as her personal favourite of her works at a discussion I attended at our local library last year. It was translated by her husband Richard Philcox.

It was interesting to read this novel so soon after Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door, given certain points in common, both placing a black Caribbean woman in South Africa and observing her relations with others around her, in the post-apartheid context, it made me wonder if she had been aware of Condé’s earlier work.

As The Story of the Cannibal Woman opens, we learn Rosélie is a 50-year-old recent widow, living alone, without family connections and few friends in Cape Town, South Africa, after the brutal murder of her white British husband, a retired university professor, who nipped out after midnight one evening, allegedly to buy cigarettes and never returned home.

The police suspect it wasn’t a random encounter, something Rosélie refuses initially to acknowledge, completely ignoring her husbands study, a room she rarely ever ventured into, one strangely she is even less inclined to now.

“Aren’t you going to return home?”

Home? If only I knew where home was.

Chance had it I was born in Guadeloupe. But nobody in my family is interested in me. Apart from that, I have lived in France. A man took me to Africa, then left me. Another took me to the United States, then brought me to Africa, and he too left me stranded, this time in Cape Town. Oh, I forgot I’ve also lived in Japan. That makes for a fine charade, doesn’t it? No, my country was Stephen. I shall stay wherever he is.

Left alone without an income to support her (they’d never married though fortunately the house was in both their names), and having made only half-hearted attempts to exhibit her paintings, even then via the efforts of others willing her to succeed, rather than by her own initiative, she decides to offer her services and a healer/clairvoyant.

It is through these occasional appointments with clients that she encounters different members of the local population and the variety of issues confronting them, such as the former trade unionist, who’d languished for years in prison on Robben Island, now a tourist guide for the masses wishing to see where Nelson Mandela had been interned, “revisiting his abuse and torture day after day, describing it down to the last detail to the inquisitive hordes in an endeavour to satisfy their curiosity, the poor guy was losing his head”

10.00am, Patient No. 7, David Fagwela, Age: 73, Particularity: one of the few South African clients, Profession: retired miner

It is an intriguing dual mystery, the ongoing investigation and gradual uncovering of the motive behind the crime plays out at the same time as the intrigue mounts regarding the widow’s reluctance confront the truth about her husband, whose death has loosened the tongues of people close to her, they now freely express their disapproval of him and the way they perceive he treated Rosélie. She appears to be shocked by these revelations and thus retraces her memories of their lives together in London, New York, Tokyo and Cape Town.

It’s an astute medium through which to learn more of their back story, for in narrating those events Rosalie shares how she interpreted events, but the reader will create their own impression and begin to see the abyss between her perspective, Stephen’s and that of their friends.

The couple go on a safari soon after arriving in South Africa, Rosélie was terrified.

What did frighten her were the men. White men. Guides, game wardens, local visitors, foreign tourists. All wearing boots and safari hats, sporting double-barrelled guns, playing in a Western without a hint of a bison or an Indian now massacred or defeated, herded toothless into their reservations. Stephen, on the contrary loved dressing up in a bush jacket and canvas shorts in camouflage, a flask clipped to his waist and sunglasses perched on his nose.

“You don’t know how to enjoy yourself,” he reprimanded her, manly grabbing the wheel of the Land Rover.

Not her fault if she suffered from the complex of a victim and identified with those who are hunted.

At the same time Rosalie is going through her crisis, there is a well publicised case in the newspapers of a woman named Fiela, who allegedly murdered her husband. In court she refuses to speak, the public begin to turn against her, some calling her a witch, others a cannibal. The police officer on Stephen’s case wonders aloud whether she might open up to Rosalie, as many of her patients do. Rosalie has imaginary conversations with Fiela, the one personality to whom she feels able to ask questions (albeit in her dreams), that she can not utter to anyone else:

“Fiela, you’ve settled into my thoughts and dreams. No bother at all. As discreet as an alter ego. You hide behind everything I do, invisible, like the silk lining of a doublet. You must have been like me, a solitary child, a taciturn teenager….Fiela,  what have they got against him? He has always been by my side.Thoughtful.Considerate. Patient to my moods…Fiela, he always forgave me, I who was not beyond reproach, who, I confess, had been unfaithful before.”

Although there was the allegation against Fiela, this story wasn’t about her, it is about Rosélie, so after reading I didn’t understand the reference to the cannibal woman, so I looked it up to see what its symbolic meaning was and discovered that it is related to post colonisation and the loss of cultural memory, this post colonial world inevitably leading to a sense of spiritual devastation, it has even become in television series today, a symbol of self-awakening.

Rosalie is far from her roots and her culture and took shelter with a man, who further alienated her from that, even though he was relatively kind to her. His death has forced her to confront herself.

Maryse Condé

I thought this book was brilliant, it can be read superficially as a plot driven novel, or at a deeper analytical level, by looking at an outside view of post apartheid South Africa through the eyes of a bi-cultural, biracial couple, neither of whom come from there.

It’s techniques with flashbacks to fill in the story are typical of the Caribbean style which Maryse Condé does to great effect as are the dream sequences, where her subconscious self expresses itself openly, illuminating the reader. I understand why it is her favourite, she has accomplished a grand feat of literature in this one thrilling novel.

“The author demonstrates how one’s entire sense of self gets swallowed up by trauma and its dislocating aftermath.” – New York Times

Highly Recommended!

My Previous Reviews of Maryse Condé’s work:

Tales From the Heart: Stories From My Childhood

Victoire: My Mother’s Mother

Segu

A Season in Rihata

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A Season in Rihata by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe) tr. Richard Philcox #WITMonth

Marysé Conde is a Guadeloupean writer I came across in 2015 when she was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize, at a time when it was a two yearly prize for a lifetime’s work.

It has now evolved into an annual prize split between the author and translator for a book translated into English that year and in 2016 it was awarded to Han Kang (South Korea) and Deborah Smith (translator) for the novel The Vegetarian.

Maryse Condé didn’t win the prize back in 2015, but was the author on the list who most appealed to me.

Since reading about her at that time, I followed her own recommendations in terms of what to read to be introduced to her work, starting with a collection of vignettes in Tales from the Heart: True Stories from my Childhood, then Victoire: My Mother’s Mother and finally, the grand masterpiece and novel she is most well-known for, especially in academic circles, as it is widely studied and recognised as an important work of historical fiction set in the African Kingdom during a significant period of change: Segu.

I’ve wanted to read more of her work, so tracked down a couple more books that have been translated into English and was fortunate enough to have listened to her speak at our local library earlier this year – though she lived in France for many years, she is now retired and has returned to her native Guadeloupe to live, though still active in literary circles.

A Season in Rihata – reviewSeason in Rihata

Zek and his Guadeloupean wife Marie-Hélène live in a small fictitious African town of Rihata, with their six children and another due any day. It is far from Paris where they met and lived in very different way and far removed from the kind of life Marie-Hélène’s remembers on the island home of her childhood.

Like all men of his ethnic group, Zek had been brought up with a kind of fear and contempt of woman – malevolent creatures whose dark instincts had to be mastered. Love had taken him by surprise. He had difficulty accepting the power Marie-Hélène held over him and was convinced that no other man except him had undergone such humiliation.

Neither are happy; Zek has never been able to get over the feeling of being looked down on by his father, even though he is long dead, and remains resentful of his younger brother Madou, who found favour without having to do anything and who was the cause of him having to relocate his family due to the unwanted attentions of his brother towards his wife.

Influenced by a father who made no pretence of his preferences, Madou had soon considered Zek as a person of limited ability and in all ways inferior; although this did not exclude a certain brotherly affection.

Now Madou is coming to Rihata, he is a political Minister coming to conduct negotiations, his presence causing many to feel uneasy, a disruption in the sleepy town where not much usually happens.

It is a novel of discontent, of the effects of selfish behaviour, which none are immune to or able to rise above. Contentedness is within their reach, but so is temptation and the effect of indulging it ricochets through all members of the extended family and the rulers of the country.

While it doesn’t reach the heights of her other work I’ve read, it’s a worthy contribution to her body of literature and I look forward to reading more.

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The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart tr. Barbara Bray #WITMonth

Bridge of BeyondAbsolutely brilliant, astonishing, loved it, one of my Top Reads of 2016 for sure.

Originally published in 1972 as Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle, The Bridge of Beyond is acknowledged as one of the masterpieces of Caribbean literature. It was republished in English in 2013 as an NYRB Classic, with an introduction by Jamaica Kincaid, beautifully translated by Barbara Bray, described as ‘an intoxicating tale of love and wonder, mothers and daughters, spiritual values and the grim legacy of slavery’.

Telumee is the last in a line of proud Lougandor women on the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe. It is a novel best left to speak for itself, as the many quotes from the novel that follow here illustrate, a work infused throughout with a vital and vibrant female energy, a force that empowers them to forge ahead, no matter the circumstances, one that will permeate the reader, instilling courage and awe at the language that creates this positive, intoxicating feeling.

In the first part we learn about her people, her mother Victory,

“a laundress, wearing out her wrists on flat stones in the rivers, and her linen emerged like new from under the heavy waxed irons”

her father, his life cut short in a fatal stabbing,

“Angebert, had led a reserved and silent existence, effacing himself so completely
that no one ever knew who it was died that day. Sometimes I wonder about him, ask myself what anyone so kind and gentle was doing in this world at all.”

the man who pulled her mother out of her grief, and out of her daughter’s life,

“The fact is that a mere nothing, a thought, a whim, a particle of dust can change the course of a life. If Haut-Colbi had not stopped in the village my little story would have been different.”

and her grandmother Toussine, ‘Queen Without a Name’, to whom her mother sent her to live.

“My mother’s reverence for Toussine was such I came to regard her as some mythical being not of this world, so that for me she was legendary even while still alive.”

Simone Schwarz-Bart

Simone Schwarz-Bart

Telumee narrates the story of her life, in small details, in melodic, incantatory prose that lures the reader in, consuming her story with great pleasure. Every change of home, village, or great journey takes them across the Bridge of Beyond, a symbol of change and the unknown, the other side.

As she passes through various stages of life, she is guided but never pressured by her grandmother, remembering her stories, her songs, her advice.

“My little ember”, she’d whisper, “if you ever get on a horse, keep good hold of the reins so that it’s not the horse that rides you.” And as I clung to her, breathing in her nutmeg smell, Queen Without a Name would sigh, caress me, and go on, distinctly, as if to engrave the words on my mind: “Behind one pain, there is another. Sorrow is a wave without end. But the horse mustn’t ride you, you must ride it.”

She will fall in love, leave to work in the kitchen of wealthy white family, build her own home, experience both profound happiness and the depths of despair, brush up against madness and find its cure, and always the reassuring presence of her grandmother.

“Sometimes old thoughts arose in me, shooting up like whirls of dust raised from the road by a herd of wild horses galloping by. The Grandmother to try to whistle up a wind for me, saying we should soon be going away, for the air in Fond-Zombi didn’t agree with my lungs now.”

As Jamaica Kincaid articulates well in the introduction, The Bridge of Beyond is not a conventional novel, and it never tries to be. It is a fluid, unveiling of a life, and a way of life, lived somewhere between a past that is not forgotten, that time of slavery lamented in the songs and felt in the bones, and a present that is a struggle and a joy to live, alongside nature, the landscape, the community and their traditions.

The cultural traditions and historical events from which this work of art springs cannot be contained in a strict linear narrative. In fact, such a device might even lend a veneer of inevitability to them. For the narrative that began with a search for fresh water on an island one Sunday morning has no end – it circles back on itself, it begins again, it staggers sideways, it never lurches forward to a conclusion in which the world where it began is suddenly transformed into an ideal, new world. Schwarz-Bart’s prose awakens the senses and enlarges the imagination; it makes me anxious for my own sanity and yet at the same time certain of it; her sentences, rooted in Creole experience and filled with surprising insights and proverbs, resonate in my head and heart.” Jamaica Kincaid

It is one of the best books I have read in a long time, coming from a place of love and appreciation that reaches far back, acknowledging the gifts of all, that make up who we are. Outstanding.

Simone and André Schwarz-Bart

Simone and André Schwarz-Bart

Simone Schwarz-Bart was born in France(her parents were from Guadeloupe) in 1938, her father a solider, her mother a teacher. When war broke out, she and her mother returned to Guadeloupe. She studied in Paris, where she met her future husband, the writer André Schwarz-Bart.

They collaborating on more than one work of literature, including a six-volume encyclopaedia Hommage à la femme noire, (In Praise of Black Women), to honour the black heroines who were missing in the official historiography.

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Segu by Maryse Condé tr. by Barbara Bray

As I have been on something of a reading journey through Maryse Condé, I want to capture a little background leading up to how she came to write this masterpiece of historical fiction, set in a time of major change in this part of Africa where her ancestors came from.

Background

 Maryse Condé grew up in a large black bourgeoise family in Guadeloupe, well-educated, with regular family visits to Paris, in fact her parents felt French and were surprised when people they deemed of a lesser status than they, (like Parisian cafe waiters) commented on how well they spoke French, in a patronising way.

Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé was the youngest of eight children, her mother married an older, financially and professionally stable man, she was a formidable teacher, a staunch, authoritative force to be reckoned with.

She died when Maryse was 14 and it wasn’t until years later that Condé began to question why her mother had been the way she had been with her and others, wondering what unseen forces had been pushing from within. this led her to research her grandmothers story, which she published as the novel Victoire, My Mother’s Mother (reviewed here).

Her own childhood she writes about in the beautiful set of vignettes, autobiographical essays collected in Tales of the Heart, Stories from My Childhood (reviewed here).

What she discovered in researching her mother and grandmother’s lives was a history of struggle, of single, compromised women, forced by the abuses inflicted upon them – for which they were harshly judged, though little more was expected of them – to raise their children alone and make do as best they could.

While Condé’s mother was fortunate to have been gifted the opportunity to acquire an education, it was a favour she wanted little or nothing to do with, never sharing the reasons  or people behind it, for her mother Victoire, had been the open mistress of her employer, a friend of his wife, a situation her daughter detested and determined to remove herself far from.

Embarking on her own education, the young Maryse Condé, discovered that though she’d had the best education possible, enabling her to find success in France and Guadeloupe, she learned little about her own history or that of  her people. It was a gap in her education she couldn’t live with, that she wished to fill and it sent her off on a historical pursuit to understand both her maternal history and the voyage of her ancestors.

HeremakhononHer novel Heremakhonon(1976), which I’ve not yet read, is a semi-autobiographical story of a sophisticated Caribbean woman, teaching in Paris, who travels to West Africa in search of her roots and an aspect of her identity she has no connection with.

It is an insightful and somewhat disappointing experience, however for Maryse Condé personally, it was a springboard to the research and work that would follow, as her subsequent novels explore issues of race, gender and culture in a variety of historical periods and locations.

From this context, we come to what is considered a significant and radiant accomplishment, Segu (1984), set in the 19th century Kingdom of Segu (contemporary Mali), entering the soul of the African continent, at a point of prophetic enlightenment, as multiple forces and influences enter into the lives of those, who until now have known great spiritual power and authority.

Review

SeguIn 1797, the kingdom of Segu is thriving, its noblemen are prospering, its warriors are prominent and powerful, at their peak. 

Their people, the Bambara are guided by story-telling griots and divining priests, their lives ruled by the elements and tradition. However their visions fall short in preparing their followers for what is to come.

From the East, religion revolutions have spread Islam across two-thirds of West Africa; from the West, despite laws passed to stop it, the slave trade continues to flourish, and from within merchants make new demands for tropical goods, developing legitimate commerce.

Segu follows the life and descendants of Dousika Traore. He is the king’s most trusted advisor and the fate of his four sons epitomise the challenges that threaten to tear their family and society apart, in this historical turning point of African history. 

Dousika falls out of favour with the King and his son’s each go off in search of adventure outside the kingdom, where they discover quite a different perception of their people and their race.

Tiekoro, renounces his people’s religion, travels North to become a religious scholar and embraces Islam. He is by turn revered, scorned, returns to his home and becomes respected. However his position is always in flux and the balance of power between peoples and their associated beliefs are continuously challenged, he falls in and out of favour.

Siga, initially accompanies his brother and must survive in the same town, but without the introductions his brother has received to help him, he retains his belief in the Bambara gods, defending tradition and becomes a merchant. Although he was born on the same day as Tiekoro, his mother was a slave, so he must accept a less ambitious, less well-connected future.

Naba, is snatched by slave traders and sold and somehow ends up as a slave on a plantation in Brazil. He escapes, only to live on another plantation, a kind of free slave, to be near the woman he loves, whose children will reconnect with the family through a series of coincidences.

Malobali, the youngest, could no longer bear to listen to his older prodigal brother preaching, storms off one day in contempt, never to return. He becomes a mercenary, spending a period of time in a makeshift army, eventually converting to Christianity to improve his chances and has an encounter with the spirit of one of his brothers.

Based on actual events, Segu transports the reader to a fascinating time in history, capturing the earthy spirituality, religious fervour, and violent nature of a people and a growing nation trying to cope with jihads, national, tribal and family rivalries, racism and suspicion, amid the vagaries of commerce.

It shines a light on the impact of cross tribal marriage and partnership, of slavery, both that perpetuated by the Europeans and from within the African continent. The role of the son and the daughter, the rules of marriage, the perceptions of religion, the rise of Islam, the practices of fetishists and superstitions of their followers. The importance of relaying history through the storytelling griots, an inherited role, passed down from family member to family member.

Intuition

Just as with Condé’s previous work, here too there is communication and connections between family members not present, whether alive or manifesting as departed ancestors, they enter via dreams, intuition, providing guidance and reassurance. The presence and guiding voice of ancestors and the reincarnation of souls is important, as is the effect of love/lust on each of them.

As with the best of historical fiction, Segu takes us through a period of significant change, by engaging the reader with a family and its members, its traditions and those who wish to rebel against them, the will to modernise, to make their way forward in a world that is rapidly changing.

It engagingly portrays the balance of power and perceptions between people from different ethnic groups, where one is judged on everything except character. We encounter historic family feuds, feuds between peoples, religion and the rise of Islam, fetish priests, slaves, concubines and nobles, a complex society.

It was a deliberately slow read for me, but at the same time riveting, a book that scratches at the surface of a significant and fascinating subject and does wonders to assist in helping that era and people become more understood.

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.