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

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!

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.

To Buy A Novel by Maryse Condé Click here (Book Depository Affiliate Link)

August is Women in Translation #WITMonth

1 Summer Chunkster - A Brief History of Seven Killings

One Summer Chunkster

Summer reading used to be beach reads, these days I have one beach read, my one summer chunkster, otherwise I try to participate in #WITMonth, reading women writers in translation, those who originally wrote their books in a language other than English.

I won’t be putting any pressure on myself to achieve any lists or numbers, but a quick scan of my shelves shows me that I already have a few potentially excellent novels to choose from for #WITMonth.

One Summer Chunkster

My summer chunkster isn’t a woman writer, it will be Marlon James Booker Prize winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killingsa novel that explores Jamaican life, culture, politics and the drug trade through a fictionalised telling with a multitude of characters, of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in the late 70’s in a blend of standard English prose and Jamaican patois.

Women in Translation

A quick look at my shelves tells me that these are the novels I’ll be choosing from in August to read books by women writing in a language other than English. I’ll be reading them in the English translation and starting off with Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang (South Korea) tr. Deborah Smith (Korean)

Viewed in South Korea initially as ‘extreme and bizarre’  it has gone on to become a cult bestseller and in English, it was the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2016 – an allegorical novel about modern-day South Korea told via three narratives surrounding a woman’s decision to become vegetarian; a story of obsession, choice, and our faltering attempts to understand others. I read and was blown away by her Human Acts earlier this year.

Masks by Fumiko Enchi (Japan) tr.  Juliet Winters Carpenter (Japanese)

A subtle and sometimes shocking novel about seduction and infidelity in contemporary Japan and the destructive force of feminine jealousy and resentment with allusions to the masks of the traditional Japanese theatrical Nō plays and the 11th century epic The Tale of Genji.

The Rabbit House by Laura Alcoba (Argentina) tr. Polly McLean (French)

A short memoir set in 1975 Buenos Aires, Argentina when Laura is seven years old and the brutal military regime has just taken over. Her father is imprisoned and she and her mother go into hiding in ‘the rabbit house’ where the resistance movement is involved in clandestine activity that puts their lives in constant danger.

The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart (French-Guadeloupean) tr.Barbara Bray (French)

Set on the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe, a story of mothers and daughters, spiritual values and the grim legacy of slavery, a reminder of the Creole oral tradition.

Crossing the Mangrove by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupean) tr. Richard Philcox (French)

More from Guadeloupe, following the death of a handsome outsider, villagers reveal clues that will uncover the mystery of this man’s death, a story imbued with the nuances of Caribbean culture.

A Season in Rihata by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupean) tr. Richard Philcox (French)

Condé’s second novel set in a sleepy backwater fictitious African state, a family struggle amid the backdrop of political upheaval, a community torn between progress and tradition, subject to the whims of a dictatorship.

The Door by Magda Szabó (Hungary) tr. Len Rix (Hungarian)

A young writer employs an elderly woman as housekeeper, a woman everyone knows, though no one knows anything about, nor have they ever crossed her threshold. An event will provoke her to unveil glimpses of her past, shedding light on her peculiar behaviour as the relationship between the two evolves. This recent New Yorker article makes comparisons with Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant FriendThe Hungarian Despair of Magda Szabó’s “The Door”

The Looking Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen (Norway) tr. John Irons (Norwegian)

A Peirene Press novella from the Chance Encounters series and another intense relationship between two women; sisters who live an isolated life, one who nurses the other and keeps house. Until one day, a man arrives… ‘raw, dark and wonderfully different from anything else’

The Fox Was Ever the Hunter by Herta Müller (Romania) tr. Philipp Boehm (Romanian)

An early masterpiece set in Ceaușescu’s Romania by Herta Müller, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature. A young school teacher returns home to find her fox fur rug has had its tail cut off. Then a foreleg. Signs she is being tracked by secret police – a portrayal of the corruption of the soul under totalitarianism.

I would love to hear any recommendations you have, that I might add to the list, anything you’ve read and absolutely loved, or are anticipating reading soon that you’ve heard good things about, let me know in the comments below. And if you’ve made a list, feel free to provide a link to it in the comments as well.

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To buy any of these titles, click on the Book Depository link below, for which I receive a small commission to put towards buying more books:

Buy a Book in Translation or A Summer Chunkster!

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.

Tales From The Heart, True Stories From My Childhood by Maryse Condé

I came across Maryse Condé recently via the Man Booker International Prize 2015 list of 10 nominated authors. She is third from the left in the picture below.

FinalistsNot a book prize as such, it is an award conferred on an author who has a significant body of published work, regardless of the original language it was written in, though some of it must have been translated into English.

It is from such long lists the gems are found I say, and having read about all 10 thanks to this excellent Interview: The Finalists Speak in The Guardian, I spotted my potential winner immediately. A winner in the sense that I intend to read a few of their books. The Indian writer Amitav Ghosh was the only author I’d read on this list.

One writer jumped out at me straight away and I pursued her works with little consideration for the pending award result. Maryse Condé didn’t win the prize, the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai did, a writer whose books intellectuals rave about, but who I’m not sure I’m ready for yet.

Tales Maryse CondéSo I took Maryse Condé’s advice and started by reading this slim volume of essays of her childhood in Guadeloupe, Tales From the Heart, True Stories From My Childhood.

She takes us right back to the beginning, to the day of her birth. Being the youngest of 8 children, the family possessed an extended collective memory and she was fortunate to have heard the story of her birth from other perspectives.

Her appearance was both a source of pride and shame for her then 43-year-old mother and 63-year-old father, proud that her body remained robust enough to support the creation of a child and shame that it publicly displayed evidence of their continued indulgence in carnal pleasures.

The first chapter Family Portrait describes her parents relationship with France:

“For them France was in no way the seat of colonial power. It was truly the Mother Country and Paris, the City of Light that lit up their lives.”

World War II wasn’t considered dark on account of all the dreadful atrocities that occurred:

“but because for seven long years they were deprived of what meant the most to them, their trips to France.”

She recounts an anecdote of a waiter in a café complimenting the family on their excellent French pronunciation, to which her parents felt indignant, considering themselves just as French as a Parisian waiter, even more so because of their higher education, manners and regular travel.

Not understanding why it mattered so, she asked her brother Sandrino:

“Could he explain my parents behaviour?” to which he replied “Papa and Maman are a pair of alienated individuals,”

a mysterious word that would rest a long time in her consciousness until she came to understand it. She realised that not only did they take no pride in their African ancestry, they knew nothing of it, however:

“They believed they were the most brilliant and most intelligent people alive, proof positive of the progress achieved by the Black Race.”

Maryse Condé

In their neighbourhood all the mothers in their circle held a profession and with it contempt for the manual work they believed had been the undoing of their own mothers. They employed a servant who, though she raised 6 children of her own would begin work at 5am to take care of the needs of the family.

We meet her best friend Yvelise, two girls who did everything together, their friendship almost destroyed by the unfortunate intervention of one of her teachers, causing a temporary rupture.

Maryse’s mother Jeanne, knew the life she didn’t wish to lead, nor her children either, she had succeeded in breaking the cycle endured by her mother and grandmother and a good education was key (and perhaps being married to a successful and much older husband). Jeanne was a school teacher, revered and feared in equal measure by those around her. Her eldest son Sandrino and her youngest child Maryse the only two children who weren’t afraid to stand up to her, the others too terrified to challenge her.

On her birthday, her favourite pupils recited compliments, gave her roses, her husband bought her jewellery and the day would culminate with a family play, a short piece of theatre written themselves, in her honour.

‘Beneath her flamboyant appearance, I imagine my mother must have been scared of life, that unbridled mare that had treated her mother and grandmother so roughly…Both of them had been abandoned with their “mountain of truth” and their two eyes to cry with.’

10-year-old Maryse asked if she could read one of her compositions for her mother’s birthday.

‘I had no idea what I wanted to write. I merely sensed that a personality such as my mother’s deserved a scribe.’

If a book of essays can reach a crescendo, this is the moment when we reach it. The moment when Maryse learns that not all lessons come from one’s parents and school teachers, some come from life itself and often when we least expect it.

In the chapter School Days , she is at school (lycée) in Paris when her French teacher asks her to present to the class a book from her island. It is a watershed moment.

‘This well intentioned proposition, however, plunged me into a deep quandary. It was, let us recall, the early fifties. Literature from the French Caribbean had not yet blossomed. Patrick Chamoiseau lay unformed in his mother’s womb and I had never heard the name Aime Césaire. Which writer from my island could I speak about? I resorted to my usual source: Sandrino.’

Sugar Cane Alley

Sugar Cane Alley

Sandrino introduces her to to a treasure. La Rue Case-Negres (Black Shack Alley) by Joseph Zobel and his hero José Hassan. It was made into an award-winning film titled Sugar Cane Alley.

It was her first introduction to a world no one up until that moment had ever mentioned; a world that highlighted slavery, the slave trade, colonial oppression, the exploitation of man by man and colour prejudice.

‘I was scared to reveal how José and I were worlds apart. In the eyes of this Communist teacher, in the eyes of the entire class, the real Caribbean was the one I was guilty of not knowing.’

These glimpses into the more significant and memorable aspects of childhood that shaped the author Maryse Condé are insightful, engaging and honest. Just as her consciousness is awakened, the vignettes finish and leave the reader desperate to know more.

I had intended to read this volume over time, but once I started reading I couldn’t stop, it is almost like reading a coming-of-age novella and at its conclusion, the writers fiction will begin. For Condé’s first novel Hérémakhonon is about a character raised in Guadeloupe, educated in Paris, who then travels to Africa in search of a recognisable past, just as she did.

‘Veronica has spent her childhood in Guadeloupe and, after a period as a student in Paris, wants to escape that island’s respectable black bourgeoisie, which she regards as secretly afraid of its own inferiority. She travels to an unnamed West African state and, while there, seeks an authentically African past with which she will be able to identify.’

Tales From The Heart is an excellent read and an intriguing introduction to the writer and her influences and will certainly make you want to read more of her work. I am very happy I have these three novels on the shelf to follow-up with only I am missing that debut novel which I really want to read now too! Very highly recommended.

Literary Works of Maryse Condé