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

Buy a Copy of The Story of the Cannibal Woman via Book Depository

Advertisements

Reading Women in Translation #WITMonth

August is the month when the annual reading challenge #WITMonth or Reading Women in Translation takes place, initially begun three years ago by Meytal at Biblibio.

I’m not a big fan or participant of reading challenges or lists, as I love changing my mind and being spontaneous about what I read next, however I do like to follow this one and read the reviews and keep up with what is being published as well as reading more of those I have discovered. And this is a challenge that is making a big difference in the reading and publishing world, so the more we read and demand books like these, the more expansive the selection will become.

I recently wrote an article about how I have become quite a fan of reading literature in translation, which was published by Tilted Axis Press in their lead up to WIT Month. If you haven’t read it already, you can do so by following the link here. At the end of the article I mention a number of titles I’ve really enjoyed, with links to my reviews. Reading in Translation, A Literary Revolution.

This year I’ll be reading a few titles from my current bookshelves and another title from one of my favourite authors Maryse Condé. Below is a summary of the author, translator, the language translated and what each book promises:

The Complete Claudine by Colette tr. Antonia White (French) – Colette began her writing career with Claudine at School, which catapulted the young author into instant, sensational success. Among the most autobiographical of Colette’s works, these four novels are dominated by the child-woman Claudine, whose strength, humour, and zest for living make her a symbol for the life force.

Selected Letters by Madame Sévigne (Marie de Rabutin-Chantal de Sévigné) tr. Leonard Tancock (French) –  One of the world’s greatest correspondents, Madame de Sevigne (1626-96) paints a vivid picture of France at the time of Louis XIV, in eloquent letters written throughout her life to family and friends. A significant figure in French society and literary circles, her close friends included Madame de La Fayette and La Rochefoucauld, she reflected on significant historical events and personal issues, and in this selection spanning almost 50 yrs, she can be humorous, melancholic, profound and superficial. Whether describing the new plays of Racine and Moliere, speculating on court scandals including the intrigues of the King’s mistresses or relating her own family concerns, Madame de Sevigne provides an intriguing portrait of the lost age of Le Roi Soleil.

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó tr. George Szirtes (Hungarian) – When Ettie’s husband dies, her daughter Iza insists  her mother give up the family house in the countryside and move to Budapest. Displaced from her community and her home, Ettie tries to find her place in this new life, but can’t seem to get it right. She irritates the maid, hangs food outside the window because she mistrusts the fridge and, in her naivety and loneliness, invites a prostitute in for tea.  Iza’s Ballad is the story of a woman who loses her life’s companion and a mother trying to get close to a daughter whom she has never truly known. It is about the meeting of the old-fashioned and the modern worlds and the beliefs we construct over a lifetime.

Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante tr. Ann Goldstein (Italian) – Following her mother’s untimely and mysterious death, Delia embarks on a voyage of discovery through the streets of her native Naples searching for the truth about her family. A series of mysterious telephone calls leads her to compelling and disturbing revelations about her mother’s final days. I’m keen to try this after reading all about it in Ferrante’s nonfiction book Frantumaglia, which I read and reviewed earlier this year.

Maryse Condé

Ever since discovering Maryse Condé via the old style Man Booker International Prize, when it was a two yearly prize for an author’s entire works, I’ve been reading through her novels and stories, as suggested by the author I started with her Tales From the Heart: True Stories from My Childhood, Victoire: My Mother’s Mother, Segu,  and A Season in Rihata.

These are the books I still have on the shelf, and I’m already halfway into the novel the author said at a visit to our local library last year was the favourite of her novels, The Story of the Cannibal Woman, set in Cape Town, and centering on the life of a widow of a multicultural couple, reminding me of the character Hortensia in Yewande Omotoso’s excellent The Woman Next Door, which I just finished reading.

The Story of the Cannibal Woman – One dark night in Cape Town, Roselie’s husband goes out for a pack of cigarettes and never comes back. Not only is she left with unanswered questions about his violent death but she is also left without any means of support. At the urging of her housekeeper and best friend, the new widow decides to take advantage of the strange gifts she has always possessed and embarks on a career as a clairvoyant. As Roselie builds a new life for herself and seeks the truth about her husband’s murder, Conde crafts a deft exploration of post-apartheid South Africa and a smart, gripping thriller.

Crossing the Mangrove – Francis Sancher, a handsome outsider, loved by some and reviled by others, is found dead, face down in the mud on a path outside Riviere au Sel, a small village in Guadeloupe.  None of the villagers are particularly surprised, since Sancher, a secretive and melancholy man, had often predicted an unnatural death for himself.  As the villagers come to pay their respects they each, either in a speech to the mourners, or in an internal monologue, reveal another piece of the mystery behind Sancher’s life and death. Retaining the full colour and vibrancy of Conde’s homeland, Crossing the Mangrove pays homage to Guadeloupe in both subject and structure.

Children of Segu – Sequel to her masterpiece Segu, this fascinating story continues as brother fights brother and the powers of the globe threaten to change their world forever. If you enjoyed Homegoing By Yaa Gyasi, defintiely check out Segu.

Conversations With Maryse Condé by Françoise Pfaff– an exploration of the life and art of Maryse Condé, including conversations about Condé’s geographical sojourns and literary paths, her personality, and her thoughts. Their conversations reveal connections between Condé’s vivid art and her eventful, passionate life. In her encounters with historical and literary figures, and in her opinions on politics and culture, Condé appears as an engaging witness to her time. The conversations frequently sparkle with humour; at other moments they are infused with profound seriousness.

Maryse Condé was born in Guadeloupe, the youngest of eight children and her essays of childhood provide an excellent base for understanding the motivations that underpin much of her writing, firstly to get to know her family influences and aspirations and why she knew nothing of their origins (a past and ancestral pattern her mother was desperate for them to leave behind), her discovery of the turning points in the history of the Kingdom of Segu in Africa and the exploration of racial, gender and cultural issues in a variety of historical eras and locales, often focused on topics with strong feminist and political concerns. As she herself said:

“I could not write anything… unless it has a certain political significance. I have nothing else to offer that remains important.” extract from an interview with Rebecca Wolff

Further Reading

Who, What, When, Where: A Guide to #WITMonth 2017 – via WomeninTranslation.com

8 New or Forthcoming Books by Arab Women – via ArabLit.org

Have you read any of these?

What books have you decided to read for WIT Month?

Do you have a favourite to recommend as I’ll be topping up my shelf for next years reading!